Bills fans are a passionate bunch. I don’t mean that in a romantic or amorous way (although the ranks probably do contain at least a few Pepe Le Pew types), but in a way that conveys how devoted to and excited they are about their team.
You’d think that some of the most passionate Bills fans live in western New York, and they probably do, but don’t underestimate the part of Bills Nation who lives outside the local viewing area. Absence may truly make the heart grow fonder, because some of the people I’ve met far from Buffalo are also some of the most diehard fans I’ve seen.
I have yet to meet a casual Bills fan outside of western New York – everyone I’ve met further out from Ralph Wilson Stadium has been pretty fanatical – encountering one seems like finding a long-lost sibling – there’s an instant connection with someone who enjoys the Bills as much as you.
Last week I traveled for business and found myself in Connecticut. It turns out the guy sitting just over the divider from me was a Bills fan. True to form, he wasn’t just your casual fan – even working in Patriots/Giants country he had Bills things on his desk and was proudly flying his Bills colors. True to form, he had just come back from traveling to the home opener in Orchard Park, a ride I have taken many times as well. It was fun talking Bills with someone as devoted to the team as me, not just someone who kind of keeps up with the team.
Bills fans in the Boston area I’ve met are also pretty fanatical, somewhat of an enigma in a land dominated by Pats fans that have enjoyed a decade of tremendous success while we have wallowed in mediocrity or worse. Boston’s a college town with plenty of transitional residents from locales far and wide, but there are actually 2 Bills Backers clubs in the city. The Boston Bills Backers meets at one the larger pubs in the city and this year expanded to the downstairs bar to accommodate their weekly membership (if they grow larger they have to find a bigger bar).
For a fan base that by any measure has the right to be demoralized given recent history, passion for the Bills is certainly not on the decline – it’s growing. Maybe it’s the belief that THIS year is finally THE year, the team made some good offseason moves, the young team is showing some forward progress or a combination of any of these, but the passion is growing.
Not to rain on anyone’s parade, but I think it may be time to put some of the passion into perspective – if your rose colored glasses have rose colored glasses, stop reading now.
It’s always nice to get a win and Sunday was no exception – beating the Browns was nice. Being up 2-1 to start the season is great (although we’ve certainly been there before). Winning a game on the road for the first time in a year was wonderful – certainly some positives there. But there’s a reason most people had this game as a win for the Bills before it was even played and a reason the game was pretty universally ignored by any media outlets not located on Lake Erie. This was not an upset of a powerful and well regarded team that puts the rest of the league on notice – it was a routine win that almost didn’t happen.
I’ll admit I was pretty nervous about how this game would turn out – being 1-2 heading into contests with New England, San Francisco and the suddenly surprising Arizona Cardinals could have been deadly to Buffalo, but being 2-1 changes things quite a bit.
The Bills were off to a great start on Sunday, scoring 14 points in the first 10 minutes of the game. Over the same stretch, they held the Browns to 14 yards on three separate 3-and-out series. This, my friends, was domination – the Bills were absolutely killing Cleveland and doing what they wanted on both sides of the ball.
Then it happened – the most talented player on the field went down with a shoulder injury. C.J. Spiller was driven to the turf and would not move his left arm as he was helped up by trainers and carted to the locker room. For the second time in two weeks the Bills had lost a top running back.
The game changed substantially when Spiller left. The Bills finished the series with a turnover and had three more drives that resulted in 13 plays, 48 yards, two punts and zero points. For their part the defense gave up three drives for 17 plays, 104 yards and a touchdown. Suddenly a halftime celebration turned to a familiar exercise in ulcer abatement and paranoia – could the Bills hold on in the second half or would this game slip away from them?
In the third quarter the Bills tacked on a field goal to make it a two-score game, but the Browns answered back with a touchdown and twice held Buffalo to 3-and-outs not exactly what you want to see when you’re nursing a three point lead. Having seen the Bills blow too many of these games in the past, it got ugly in my living room as visions of being 1-5 invaded my subconscious.
The Bills put together a better fourth quarter, scoring another touchdown and intercepting the ball twice and in the end emerged with the victory. It was closer than it should have been, but a win is a win.
Here’s why I think the Bills’ win needs to be put in perspective lest passionate fans start uttering words like playoffs or division champions. Sure the Bills passed a test on Sunday when they won a game on the road, but it was one they should be able to pass if they are as good as fans think. The Bills first major test of the season – defeating a quality division opponent – was something they failed miserably in week one. By contrast, the test on Sunday was smaller in scale and less important (but I’ll take it).
Ready for test three? I hope the Bills are. New England comes to Orchard Park next Sunday and already several cards are not falling in the Bills’ favor – the Patriots are 1-2, their first time below .500 in a decade (think about that – it’s crazy). Surely they are a desperate and dangerous team. If you think they have a losing record because they’re a team in decline you haven’t seen them play much – their defense may have some issues but offensively they’re still one of the best and Tom Brady is no Brandon Weeden. Only a fool would dismiss New England as a team Buffalo should dispatch with ease.
The Bills will almost definitely be without Spiller and possibly Fred Jackson as well, leaving third stringer Tashard Choice to possibly carry the load. No offense to Choice, but he’s not anywhere near the talent of a Spiller or a Jackson – a sizeable drop off as a feature running back if it comes to that. While Ryan Fitzpatrick has ranged from terrible (vs. the Jets) to solid (vs. Kansas City and Cleveland), he hasn’t been anywhere near spectacular (which is great because he hasn’t had to be).
Considering Cleveland held the Bills to 3-and-out on 5 of their final 6 drives, I’m not too excited about them facing a needy Bill Belichick-coached team with Fitzpatrick and Choice. The Bills offensive line has played exceptionally well this season, opening running lanes for very talented running backs and giving Fitzpatrick some time to make a throw, but the running game is going to have to carry the passing game or the passing game is going to have to carry the running game – I just don’t think the talent will be there to do that.
Defensively the Patriots matchup could cause problems for the Bills as well. Brady is king of the quick release, blunting a talented pass rush. Quick short passes over the middle will challenge Buffalo’s weakest defensive point – its linebackers. Brady will also go deep if he gets time, something that could test Buffalo’s young corners – a tough assignment.
So Buffalo is 1-1 on tests this season and Sunday will be its biggest yet. If the Bills are going to take the next step in their development and prove that they deserve to be considered a top team in the AFC they must win against New England – win that and people will be talking.
Be happy that the Bills beat the Browns – not long ago they would have folded and lost that game for sure. Be pleased with the performance you saw, especially when their most talented offensive weapon was on the field. Be passionate about your team, support them and show your colors. But understand that a win over a Cleveland team whose two most talented players are rookies playing only their third NFL game is only a major accomplishment if you’re a Bills fan – a passionate Bills fan.