Scott Chandler was on the field with the offense Sunday when suddenly it struck him. It was three years ago when the Bills scored a touchdown with 14 seconds remaining in the very same end zone to finish off an 80-yard drive in a wild 38-35 victory over the Raiders.
“It was the closest feeling I’ve had,” Chandler said. “David Nelson caught a touchdown on the last play of the game, or close to it.”
Chandler has been with the Bills for four seasons filled with mostly frustration and heartache. Too often, it was the Bills who allowed the opposition to march down the field in the closing minutes, the Bills who gave up a first down on fourth and a mile, the Bills who turned obscure players into superstars.
Along comes a change in the script?
The conclusion left 68,477 fans stunned while filing out of Ralph Wilson Stadium after a 17-16 victory over the Vikings. How many times have they stormed to the parking lots wondering how the Bills lost the game? They hooted and hollered all the way home Sunday while wondering how they won.
It usually goes the other way.
This time, it went Buffalo’s way.
“The last drive wasn’t the past four years,” Chandler said. “We’re a different team this year.”
The Bills were a fortunate team Sunday afternoon. Kyle Orton was staring down a fourth-and-20 play from his own 40 with 1:27 remaining when he found Chandler for a 24-yard gain over the middle. They were down to 25 seconds when Orton threw a pass down the sideline toward Chris Hogan.
It appeared 7-Eleven was, in fact, closed. Hogan, an undrafted free agent playing for his fourth team in four years, somehow made a 28-yard catch over Xavier Rhodes to give Buffalo the ball at the 2. Orton spiked the ball with five seconds remaining and no timeouts. The Vikings called a timeout.
The Bills had time for one play to either win in dramatic fashion after struggling offensively all afternoon or lose at the goal line as they richly deserved.
History has taught people to hope for the best … but prepare for the worst. It’s the Buffalo way. The Bills have shown a gift for manufacturing losses. Fans have been conditioned to believe something will go horribly wrong because it usually does – a fumbled snap, dropped pass, poor play call or penalty.
It’s also the Buffalo way, but Orton and Sammy Watkins haven’t been here long enough to know they were expected to crumble. The snap was clean. Watkins created separation. Orton threw a perfect pass. Watkins made the catch. Offensive coordinator Nate Hackett made the right call. No flags.
Still, it wasn’t until Duke Williams positively flattened Cordarrelle Patterson near the Buffalo sideline on the ensuing kickoff, ending the possibility of the Bills losing Home Run Throwback-style, that it became apparent the Bills had actually become the team stealing a win.
The Bills have experienced more misery over the last 14 seasons than any team in the league. Such losses had become the norm. They finished 6-10 for the third year in a row last season and were a half-dozen plays from finishing 10-6. Losing has been a way of life around here.
The Vikings boarded their bus wondering how their six-point lead slipped away in the final two-plus minutes, but that’s how it works in the NFL. With so much parity in a mediocre league, the difference in games often comes down to a single play. If they stop Chandler or cover Hogan, they win.
Buffalo is only seven games into the season, but maybe something is different with this team. The Bills found a way to beat the Bears in overtime after Kyle Williams intercepted a pass. They converted a two-point conversion against the Lions and ended up winning by a field goal with nine seconds left.
Maybe they’re learning how to win.
It doesn’t mean all is well along One Bills Drive, as Doug Marrone would attest. The Bills lost their best offensive player and leader, Fred Jackson, and their most dynamic back, C.J. Spiller, in the first half Sunday. The theory that running backs have been devalued will be tested in the weeks ahead by a team lacking a consistent passing game.
But at least their defense isn’t giving away games, as it had so often in the past. It could be the biggest difference of all between this season and the others. The Bills had four turnovers and allowed only 16 points. They have allowed 23 points or fewer six times in seven games and less than 17 points three times.
The Bills limited the Vikings to 275 total yards, respectable considering the offense gave the ball away four times. They needed a stop after Minnesota drove to the 7-yard line in the fourth quarter and sacked Teddy Bridgewater on consecutive plays. They forced the Vikings into punting on their final drive.
It set up Buffalo’s 80-yard march toward the scoreboard for the winning touchdown. Everything fell into place, a welcome deviation from the norm that rekindled memories from the past.
“That’s the feeling we want to have,” Chandler said. “We’d rather have that than the other. We have to be better. We know that, but winning in this league is no small task no matter who you’re playing, where you’re playing or what time of the year it is. Finding a way to get a win always feels good.”