Just when you think you have the Bills figured out, they go and change on you. Sunday’s road win in Atlanta against a previously undefeated Falcons team kept the Bills improbable victory parade going, much to the chagrin of a guy like me who anticipated and steeled myself for a 4-win season. There’s something very different about these Bills and I like it – but is it a real change?
The Bills organization has been in almost continual change in its quest to return to anything resembling the glory days now so distant in our memories as fans. Since the Bills last went to the playoffs they have had 17 starting quarterbacks, six general managers and 10 head coaches. Such turnover has alternately been used to justify poor results (“hey – it’s a new regime – you gotta give them time”) and justify the need to make further change (“this isn’t working – we gotta do something else”).
When the Pagulas bought the Bills in 2014 it seemed as if the organization might turn over a new leaf and fans would finally see some real change. Fans braced for the new boss to make changes and wait until such changes could bear fruit, but the results from 2014-2016 sure didn’t seem a whole lot different than they had been under various earlier regimes between 2000 and 2014. For long suffering fans like myself, it sure seemed as if Buffalo had a certain quality of eternal mediocrity that could just not be shaken, even with changes in ownership on down. As an institution the Bills seemed to have an identity as a team perennially no better than average. Over the years the Bills found new ways to torture their rabid fan base with different ways to lose football games but never got bad enough to completely rebuild.
This past offseason when the Bills hired Sean McDermott as head coach and Brandon Beane General Manager, many fans were hopeful for some sort of real change and predicted that when given a chance the Bills would shed their persona of mediocrity and learn how to win. As a hardened pessimist this sure sounded like it had in past years – “these are the guys who are gonna turn it around – given them some time – you’ll see.”
Fast forward through the first quarter of the season and the Bills are sitting at 3-1, one drive in Carolina away from being undefeated. For the first time in franchise history the Bills have defeated a previously undefeated opponent in back to back weeks. I have a strange bounce in my step on Monday mornings and it sure feels good to be a Bills fan, but the question still remains – have the Bills really changed?
Watching Sunday's game sure had me thinking the Bills may have finally lost whatever has stuck to them for the past 17 years. Whether you call it mojo, juju, stank or ick – you know what I’m talking about – the gum on the sole of the organization that you can’t get rid of and fouls up everything.
The first half of Sunday’s game against Atlanta was pretty much what I expected to see – the Bills defense played very well and limited a powerful Falcons offense to just 10 points. The Bills managed to move the ball in a very workman-like manner and in the second quarter they scored a touchdown to lead Atlanta on the scoreboard – the first time the Falcons had experienced being behind this entire season. This is the formula the Bills used last week to defeat Denver and probably the one their talent dictates be used to win games this season – play good defense and hold onto the ball and grind out yards offensively and keep the chains moving with small plays and good running.
The second half of the game is where things got interesting – the team on TV certainly looked like the Bills, but some of what happened was very atypical of what we’ve seen for years. The Bills got the second half kickoff and promptly went 3-and-out without gaining a single yard – we’ve certainly seen that before.
Atlanta’s drive had the ball moving until Matt Ryan was hit by Jerry Hughes as he dropped back to pass and Tre'Davious White scooped up the ball and ran 52 yards for a Bills touchdown. Replays showed that Matt Ryan got hit but his arm was moving forward, likely meaning that the play would be ruled an incomplete pass when examined on replay. Stunningly, the review did not overturn the ruling on the field and the Bills’ touchdown stood. I know all football fans feel like their team never gets a call go their way but seriously – when was the last time Buffalo got a call like that? How many scores have been pulled off the board in similar circumstances over the past 17 years?
On the next Atlanta series the Bills reaped the benefit of the home team losing its top two receivers who were out of the game due to injury. Without Julio Jones and Mohammad Sanu, Ryan threw the ball into coverage expecting his receiver to out-jump the Buffalo DB, but it was intercepted by Micah Hyde.
The Bills took the ball and drove all the way down to the Atlanta 1-yard line but failed to punch it in. Despite playing good defense all day and moving the ball very well on the ground, McDermott elected to kick the field goal rather than take a fourth down shot at the end zone. Taking the conservative route and putting the points on the board rather than going for the kill with a touchdown has certainly come back to haunt the Bills many times, and this decision certainly had all the hallmarks of future doom – it just really felt as if the Bills were going to leave the door open for Atlanta to beat them later in the quarter as so many other teams have done in recent history.
Sure enough, with the Bills leading by seven points with only 12 minutes left to play, the Bills let up a big return on their kickoff, allowing Atlanta to start a game-tying drive at midfield. Yep – here it was – the Bills would allow the Falcons to tie and they’d almost certainly be trailing when the final clock ticked its last – we’ve seen this too many times to count. Sure enough, Atlanta drove down and tied the score at 17-17 with a touchdown – the Bills were starting to fade.
The Bills drove down and went up again in the score when Steve Hauschka booted a 56 yard field goal with under five minutes left to play – I can’t remember the last time the Bills hit a very long field goal late in the game to regain the lead. Seriously, isn’t this normally the time a field goal opportunity is shanked, even if attempted from a makeable distance?
Atlanta started their next drive down 20-17 and 3 plays later Matt Ryan had a ball tipped that ended up in the hands of Micah Hyde – or so we thought. Replay again showed it was possible that the ball may have hit the turf and I expected the call to be overturned. When the officials announced that the ruling of an interception would stand I was again stunned – the Bills had gotten a beneficial replay review earlier and now they were getting another? Again? Buffalo gets a call go their way here and there, but twice in the same game – the same fourth quarter no less – is almost beyond comprehension.
Another drive by the Bills and another long field goal – wow, Hauschka has been clutch this season. It would be hard to blame a guy for missing a kick greater than 50 yards – those aren’t automatic. In the case of the Bills, we’ve seen time and again when you really have to have more points the kick somehow goes awry – no points and solid field position for the opponent, but that didn’t happen. It did, however, set the Bills up for a heartbreaking single point loss at the end of the game if Atlanta could drive for the touchdown and extra point – if that thought didn’t go through your head you’re there are only a few reasons why – a) You’re new to being a Bills fan b) Your optimism is so strong people think you’re having a manic episode c) You’re really drunk and didn’t even know you were watching football.
Atlanta’s final drive took them all the way down to the Buffalo 10 yard line, but three incomplete passes kept them a yard away from the first down and with 49 seconds on the clock the Bills forced a turnover on downs when the rookie White defended a pass to Tyler Gabriel – the Bills had won!
I sat in stunned yet sweet silence, wondering what I had just witnessed, then turned the channel to see the Patriots go down in flames on a last second Panther field goal. After a quarter of the season, the Bills sit alone atop the AFC east with an up arrow and New England is trying to figure out what’s wrong with their team – you’ll have to excuse me if this is all a bit much to try and process all at once.
To recap, the Bills got two replay calls go their way that could have gone against them (not saying that they got lucky, but calling them the other way would not have been outrageous), kicked two long field goals, survived going for three rather than a touchdown and stopped a high powered offense on fourth down to end the game – talk about everything lining up perfectly.
I want to believe that all of this means that the Bills are finally going in a positive direction, that the mediocrity and futility of the past are behind and that the new regime has finally turned the ship around. I want to believe that the Bills have a legitimate shot to take a huge developmental step this year and that Sean McDermott will be lauded as one of the rare coaches capable of coming in and almost immediately getting the most out of a team. Unfortunately, while things certainly do feel different with the team and the organization as a whole, I’ve seen far too many early season successes fizzle out and turn to middling final results.
So while I’m not ready to pronounce that the leopard has finally changed its spots and that the Bills are going to greater things this season, I am very pleased with what I have seen so far – you have to be. I think the Bills need to add talent in a number of areas to truly be competitive, but they certainly are getting the most out of the talent they have. The Bills are playing exciting games and most importantly, they’re winning. If McDermott and Beane continue to obtain and utilize talent the way they have we should see further wins, and that’s when I’ll be ready to say that the Bills are a new organization and the gum will finally be removed from my soul.
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