There have been two defining themes of the 2020 Buffalo Bills season. The first is Josh Allen molting his prior skin to become one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and forcing many in sports media to either apologize for their past takes or double down on them in a desperate act of myopia. The second is the constant reminders of the year 1995.
Tom Brady—a man who went 32-3 against the Bills and once had the gall to question the integrity of Buffalo hotels—left the AFC East in March. Before he even touched down in Tampa, the Bills began garnering hype as the division’s new favorites. And that’s when you started hearing it: “The Buffalo Bills haven’t won the AFC East since 1995.” It was a sentence uttered during every game the team played, right up until they rendered the statement obsolete.
here’s a couple photos of me the last time the Buffalo Bills won the AFC East pic.twitter.com/mVEP52cfZV— Andrew Gruttadaro (@andrewgrutt) December 20, 2020
But the thing about losing for as long as the Bills have is that there are always more milestones to conquer. In 2017, the team ended its 17-year playoff drought, an achievement that merely meant swapping one symbol of futility with another. And when the Bills clinched the AFC East by beating the Denver Broncos in December, that’s when you started hearing it: “The Buffalo Bills haven’t won a playoff game since 1995.”
Twenty-five years is a long time by any measure, but it’s an especially long time to be losing. You stop feeling the pain; the hurt becomes a normal state of being. “There’s always next year” becomes a sick joke to say to someone in line at Wegmans. The losing seeps into your marrow, hardening your soul and calcifying into a strange mixture of self-loathing and twisted pride. Watching a football team that’s done this to you—and when a team loses as much and as brutally as the Bills have, it’s impossible to think they weren’t doing it to you—becomes warped. The hope that the pain will subside is eclipsed only by the knowledge that it never will. Fear surrounds you, slowly encroaching on the light until there’s only darkness. Only another year gone by.
Maybe that’s why it takes so long to break a losing streak once the rot sets in. Maybe that’s why it took 25 years for the Bills to chart a new path. Maybe that’s why, in beating the Indianapolis Colts 27-24 to claim a playoff victory on Saturday, Bills fans were forced to face all of their demons from the past quarter century.
There’s something perfectly Bills-ian about the team going 13-3 and earning the second seed in the AFC the same year the NFL changed the playoff format to allow two more teams to qualify and to award a bye to only the top seeds. Any other year, this past Saturday would’ve been a relaxing one for Western New York. I might’ve gone to a park or something. Instead, the Buffalo Bills hosted the 11-5 Colts, a 7-seed leaps and bounds better than the NFC’s final playoff entrant, the 8-8 Chicago Bears. There’s something perfectly Bills-ian about that, too. (A more Bills-ian viewing experience would have also included fans in the stadium for each game of this historic season. But like many teams, Buffalo limited in-person attendance this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, and there were at least 6,700 fans at Saturday’s game.)
Any hope that the game would resemble the last six weeks of the regular season—the best stretch in Bills history that I can recall, in which the team went 6-0 and outscored teams 229-110—evaporated quickly. Instead, the game turned into an existential crisis; fans were to be led through the seven circles of Bills hell, with Josh Allen serving as our Virgil.
The Colts picked up first downs at will, controlling field position and dominating possession. An early drive was highlighted by a dime to Stefon Diggs and ended with a totally silly touchdown pass to Dawson Knox that encapsulated the sublimity of Josh Allen. But Buffalo’s offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, leaned heavily on the Bills’ mediocre running game. In the second quarter, the offense went three-and-out without attempting a pass. As the Colts approached the end zone at the two-minute warning with an opportunity to go up 17-7, a sense of foreboding set in. Shades of the Bills’ 2017 playoff game, in which Tyrod Taylor completed just 17 passes for 134 yards in a 10-3 loss against another AFC South team, began to grow darker. You could practically hear announcer Ian Eagle move the ticker on Buffalo’s streak without a playoff win from 25 years to 26.
And then? Incomplete pass off the outstretched fingertips of Colts wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. Turnover on downs on the Bills’ 4-yard line with 1:52 to go in the half. Josh Allen’s ball.
On April 26, 2018, I was sitting in a movie theater watching the Avengers get beat up by Thanos when my phone started exploding. That’s when I knew the Buffalo Bills had drafted Joshua Patrick Allen. Josh Rosen or Sam Darnold could never warrant so many notifications that it felt like there were multiple Amber Alerts going off simultaneously. With a delicate hand so as not to upset the Marvel stans, I reached for my phone. My friend had sent our group chat a video: “I’m dead inside,” he said into the camera before chugging an entire Labatt Blue. The Ringer’s NFL Slack channel had ignited into a celebration fueled by Bills schadenfreude. Swallowing hard, maybe fighting back a few tears, I typed the only thing I could think of:
I wanted Rosen—I’m on record on this very website saying so. Allen had prototypical size and a cannon for an arm, but he was undoubtedly a project—and when had projects ever panned out for the Bills? As people in the movie theater mourned the disintegration of Peter Parker, I mourned the disintegration of the Buffalo Bills. And then, less than 12 hours later, I welcomed Josh Allen into my heart.
Programming note: I will only ever refer to Josh Allen as “Joshy”— Andrew Gruttadaro (@andrewgrutt) April 27, 2018
This is what you do if you’re a Bills fan. I did it with Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2009, and I did it with Trent Edwards, EJ Manuel, and Sammy Watkins—you ignore the stats, the circumstances, and the rational arguments, and you open your heart. Maybe he is a bumbling idiot who can’t complete a 5-yard out, but he’s your bumbling idiot. And to Joshy’s credit, he made himself easy to love: He talked about chicken wings and loving snow. He wanted to be in Buffalo, which was more than you could ever say about “better players” like Terrell Owens or Antonio Brown or Marshawn Lynch—or even just guys like Vontae Davis.
Allen was thrust into the starting role too early, but watching him was like taking acid. In his third game, Allen jumped over Anthony Barr. The scouting reports were correct: Allen was an athletic freak … who had a league-low completion percentage and frequently made decisions that made you question whether he had a brain. But he also did undeniably dope shit like telling a reporter that the Bills were the NFL’s only actual New York team, and signing a picture of himself flexing with the message, “Hey Ramsey, am I still trash? #BillsMafia” after beating the Jags. The continued persecution of Joshy, meanwhile—the constant questions of “How far will Allen take the Bills?”—created an us-versus-them narrative that only intensified fans’ devotion to him. Yes, we’ve been overly defensive. But you can’t expect parents to remain calm when you insult their child.
For three years, we’ve desperately tried to convince ourselves that Josh Allen is good. When Joshy threw for 415 yards and four touchdowns against the Miami Dolphins in Week 2 of this season, that finally became a fact. So much of the conversation has been about taking the Good Josh (the laser throws on the run to Cole Beasley) with the Bad Josh (the turnovers that almost seemed like performance art), but this year, Bad Josh has been almost entirely erased. In Week 3, he threw four more touchdowns and ran for another against the Los Angeles Rams. (Ramsey no longer thinks he’s trash.) A lingering shoulder injury coincided with a midseason slump, but Allen returned after the Bills’ bye in Week 11 as the best quarterback in the league. And along with the 19 total touchdowns from Week 12 to Week 17, there was still all of the extracurricular stuff that makes Allen a Buffalo hero: the adorable bromance with Diggs; spinning a football at the feet of Chargers cornerback Michael Davis after beating him to the pylon for a touchdown; his speech after clinching the AFC East. “This hat and shirt’s fine and dandy,” said Allen, “but I want the one that says fucking ‘Super Bowl Champions’ on it.”
In the past 25 years, Buffalo has never had swagger like this. Buffalo has never been must-see TV. We’ve never had a guy to love this hard, who loves us back just as fervently. We’ve never had the security of having the best player on the field: a quarterback who can run over a linebacker, throw a fastball to Jake Kumerow, drop a deep pass into Diggs’s arms, or do whatever the hell he did on that touchdown pass to Knox on Saturday.
Some still scoff at the notion that Josh Allen is a top-five quarterback. Now they’re the ones ignoring rational arguments.
By the start of the fourth quarter Saturday, the nerves had settled. A heroic 96-yard touchdown drive to end the first half—marked by two unreal sideline catches by Gabriel Davis—had given the Bills the lead, which they expanded to 14 points with yet another Allen-to-Diggs connection. Bills Stadium (call it the Ralph) was blasting “Shout,” the 6,700 fans in attendance were singing along, and the defense was taking the field against Philip Rivers, a quarterback known to throw backbreaking interceptions in the playoffs.
But overcoming decades of devastation wasn’t going to be that easy. Suddenly, it was January 4, 2020, all over again.
Last year, the Bills took a 16-0 lead on the Houston Texans in the third quarter of their wild-card matchup. I wouldn’t call what happened after that a roller coaster—I’d call it riding in the passenger seat of a burning car that no one is driving. The memories are like flashes singed into my brain, but scattered and blurry. DeAndre Hopkins doing things; a Cody Ford blindside block call I still disagree with; that Josh Allen lateral; Deshaun Watson somehow turning a devastating sack into a 34-yard completion in overtime; the kick going through the uprights; the feeling of having your throat ripped out and held in front of you. It was all too real, a fact you couldn’t escape. The Bills had blown it—just like they always have, just like they always would.
The Colts needed just two minutes and 38 seconds to cut the Bills’ lead to six in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game, and suddenly my mind drifted back to Houston. I could hear echoes of Joe Tessitore’s overly dramatic voice. A 54-yard field goal from Tyler Bass increased the Bills’ lead to 11, keeping full panic at bay—that is, until the Colts’ next scoring drive lasted under two minutes. Three-point game, six minutes to go. And yes, it did feel like a cosmic omen that the Colts were being led by Frank Reich, the man who was the Bills quarterback for the largest playoff comeback in NFL history.
It has to go our way eventually, doesn’t it? These are the kinds of questions you ask yourself at a time like this, after years of sports-related abuse. And while the good part of your brain says yes, the bad part—the part that’s much easier to listen to—says, “What in the world would ever make you think it does?”
As fans descended deeper into Bills hell, Bad Josh rose from the dead. On a first-and-10, you’d expect a running play, but Allen dropped back to pass and was met almost immediately by Colts defensive tackle Tyquan Lewis. The problem with Allen being able to break so many tackles is that once in a while he tries to break all of the tackles. To his credit, he evaded Lewis’s grasp, but he was thrown right into Denico Autry—and that’s when the ball came out. It was an excruciating handful of seconds, during which I thought all of my worst thoughts and said all of the worst words. But look at the path of that ball and tell me that God doesn’t exist: sitting at the feet of a Colts lineman, the ball was kicked backward, and while three other Colts surrounded it, the flailing right arm of Bills offensive lineman Darryl Williams pinned it to the turf and brought it into his body.
Another demon slayed, yet it wouldn’t be the last. Not even close.
On the ensuing Colts’ possession, the walls of my apartment slowly closed in on me. How might the devil make this test harder? Ah, yes, a horrendous call. As the officiating crew took longer and longer to review a game-clinching fumble by Zach Pascal that was unquestionably a fumble, more bad memories cropped up. How are they not calling that a forward lateral by Frank Wycheck?! They overturned that Kelvin Benjamin catch?! Why wasn’t the ruling of a Texans fumble upheld?!
Curses don’t exist; curses are a human invention to give meaning to the unceasing, inexplicable, cruel nature of existence. We are insignificant, and the universal laws of cause and effect care not for us. Sometimes, the world is simply against you. But it’s difficult to remember that watching the Bills play football. And it was impossible to remember that when referee Brad Allen announced that there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn the call on the field.
The Colts were still driving, and even with the offense stuck around midfield, the time on the clock dwindling, and a quarterback under center with an arm that had lost most of its power, I could feel my throat about to be pulled out yet again. Surely, the Bills couldn’t survive all of this.
Dropping back as the clock hit zero, Rivers chucked the ball toward the end zone. The camera followed it in the air for what felt like minutes—focusing in on the ball for so long it seemed there was no longer human life on the ground.
On November 15, the Buffalo Bills were headed towards their eighth win in 10 games. Allen had pulled off another miracle, finding a Stefon Diggs in the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals with just 34 seconds left.
But you’ve seen the photos. You know what happened. Kyler Murray somehow evaded the outstretched arms of Mario Addison and, twisting his body in an unfathomable way, launched the ball 50 yards downfield. Surrounded by Tre’Davious White, Jordan Poyer, and Micah Hyde, DeAndre Hopkins—the same DeAndre Hopkins who’d helped the Texans beat the Bills in the playoffs—came down with the ball as time ran out. Game over. The Buffalo Bills once again reduced to being the victim of an iconic highlight.
Yet something felt different this time around. The Hail Murray, as they call it, was a stunning play, but it wasn’t a heartbreaking play. The Bills were still standing after it—they still had Joshy, Diggs, Beasley, Tre, and the most underrated safety pairing in football; Sean McDermott would still be wearing the headset the following week; and Brian Daboll would still be calling the plays. It took one of the best plays in recent NFL history to beat this team. As offensive lineman Dion Dawkins put it in The Players’ Tribune last week:
We looked at them. And then we looked at us. And I think we just had this moment of, Alright — hold up. If they’re fired up like they won the Super Bowl….. why aren’t we upset like we lost the Super Bowl?
And I think that’s when it hit us. It hit us that things are different now.
The difference between this season and the past 25 is simple: The Buffalo Bills are one of the best teams in the NFL. I’m not used to saying this unironically, and it’s something I still hesitate to say out of some fear of a jinx. But it’s the truth: They have one of the best records in the league, one of the best coaches in the league, one of the best quarterbacks, one of the best wide receivers in the league … they’re just good—good enough to survive a sudden jolt. Good enough to overcome mistakes. Good enough to look their demons in the eye and vanquish them.
As Philip Rivers’s pass came back down to Earth on Saturday, it was one of the three players victimized by Hopkins months ago who seized a chance at retribution. With an emphatic fury, Micah Hyde leaped into the air and spiked the ball into the ground. Time was out. The Buffalo Bills had won a playoff game. As cameras cut to the sideline, McDermott could be seen with his arms raised and his eyes closed, pointing to the sky in triumph. I was running back and forth across my apartment, not quite sure what else to do. My friend was once again chugging a Labatt Blue, no longer dead inside.
This is a new era of feeling for Bills fans. It’s not that we’re satisfied with a single playoff victory—it’s that we’re unburdened by the past, and newly confident in the team’s ability to get more of these wins, if not this year then next year, or the year after that. On Saturday, the Bills sloughed off 25 years of torture and came out on the other end still standing. The pain we carried as fans was relieved, and the hope we never relinquished was finally rewarded.
On Saturday night, Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens come to Orchard Park. It won’t be a matchup between a winning franchise and a team trying to reverse decades of bad vibes. It’s just going to be a game between two great teams trying to win a Super Bowl.
It’s just going to be a game.