Here’s some happy news for Bills fans, just in time for the New Year. After all these years of lacerating frustration and disappointment, you’re heading back to the big game.
“The Super Bowl came early!” running back Boobie Dixon said after Sunday’s 16-6 win over the Cowboys. “We’re not going to the playoffs, so it’s Super Bowl next week for us.”
All right, so this wasn’t what Rex Ryan had in mind when he promised the playoffs. But next week at The Ralph, the Bills could have a chance to spoil it for Ryan’s former team, the Jets, who will likely need to win here next week to get into the postseason.
On Sunday night, the NFL was considering flexing the Bills-Jets game to prime time next week. But it’s not likely, because a Steelers loss to the Browns earlier in the day would clinch a wild card for the Jets and render a night game at The Ralph a pointless formality.
I imagine the idea of scuttling the Jets’ playoff run would be small comfort for Buffalo fans, who bought a record number of season tickets this season after Ryan declared that he was going to build a bully, improve the defense, and snap the 15-year playoff drought.
Instead, they’re left with the small consolation of rooting for an 8-8 season and denying a fond old friend, Ryan Fitzpatrick, the first playoff berth of an 11-year NFL odyssey that has taken him to six different teams – four in the last four years.
But you couldn’t ask for a better story line: Fitzpatrick playing for his first playoff in his former home; Rex trying to stop the team that fired him after six seasons in New York; oh, and lest we forget, former Bills head coach Chan Gailey returning as the mastermind of the Jets offense.
As Fitz said after throwing a 6-yard TD pass to Eric Decker in overtime, it’s a “crazy circumstance” that it could all come down to what happens next Sunday in Buffalo.
I suspect Bills fans won’t be thinking of it as their Super Bowl. It has to be bittersweet to know Fitz and Gailey will come here with a chance to achieve what eluded them during their three years together in Buffalo.
When people circled next week’s game on their calendars, it was with the assumption that the Bills would be the team vying for the playoffs. And when the Bills won at the Jets on a Thursday night six weeks ago, tying them at 5-4, they looked to have the upper hand.
The Jets have gone 5-1 since, including five straight wins. The Bills went 2-4, including Sunday’s home win over a bad Cowboys team that was going nowhere.
It was a good win, one that should solidify Ryan’s standing with his owner, but essentially a hollow victory.
I have to admit, I spent much of the day keeping track of the Jets-Patriots game, hoping the Jets would pull it out to increase the chances that next week’s game at The Ralph would have playoff significance, that it wouldn’t be another in a long line of dreary Buffalo finales.
Sorry, but I’m not sure I could endure another dismal, inconsequential home game like Sunday’s win over the Cowboys. On a dank, gray day in an intermittent rain, the Bills and Cowboys engaged in a contest that seemed suitable for such a dreary holiday setting.
The fans deserve a lot of credit for showing up in large numbers. There was talk that The Ralph might be half-empty, but the stadium was mostly full. Despite the weather and the Bills’ plight, it was a better turnout than I’ve seen in some other NFL cities in September.
Ryan showered praise on the fans, calling them the most loyal he’s seen. He said he was disappointed not to have delivered a playoff team. He went on to promise he would get things right, that he would fix the defense and get the Bills into the playoffs. He and his players mouthed the usual cliche about building for the future.
“It was a good team win,” said Jerry Hughes, who had his 14th penalty of the year early in the game. “It’s something we can use to build for next year. When the elements get tough, our fans are going to be here. We can still win in December.”
Yeah, build for next year. Bills players say it every year. It becomes empty talk when you’ve been through it for 16 years.
You learn that one season never flows smoothly into the next, and that wins late in one year rarely have any impact on the next.
There’s no telling what the team will look like next season.
Beating a bad Dallas team doesn’t change the reality that Ryan acknowledged after the embarrassment in Washington – that there are bound to be major changes when a team disappoints as profoundly as the Bills have this season.
The Bills rushed for 236 yards. They lead the NFL in rushing. But they’ve done that before during the playoff drought, to no avail.
They have to figure out how to fix Ryan’s defense and whether Tyrod Taylor, who had nearly as many runs as passes Sunday, is the long-term answer at quarterback, among other issues.
But here I am, acting as if the season is over. There’s one monumental game left to play.
When Dixon called it a Super Bowl, it reminded me of the late Ralph Wilson saying the same thing about a game against the Chargers in 2001, after John Butler, AJ Smith and Doug Flutie fled for San Diego.
“We got something to play for now,” Dixon said. “We did have something to play for, and that’s our respect and our pride. You always want that. But to send the Jets home packing? That would be great.”
It’ll also be a lot more fun to see a Bills finale with a playoff spot on the line for either team – which hasn’t been the case since 2008. Eric Wood, who came to the Bills the same year as Fitz, remains close to his former quarterback. I asked him after the game how soon he would text his buddy.
“I already texted him,” Wood said. “I said ‘Congrats on the win, I’ll see you soon.’
“It’ll mean a lot to him coming back here. I know he loves this place. He has a lot of close friends here. There will be a Fitz cheering section from down in Lake View coming to see him, I can tell you that.”
Ryan was late to the postgame interview, perhaps because he stopped to watch the end of the Pats-Jets game. He denied it. But it’s hard to take him at face value where the Jets are concerned. He said “I don’t really feel anything” about playing spoiler against them.
So you won’t tell us what you really think until after the game, I asked him, like the first time you played them this year?
“Just hit the same comments I had last time,” Ryan said.
Fine. Here’s Rex after the Thursday night win at the Jets on Nov. 12: “The game felt like playoff intensity and both teams fighting for their lives to get in. It’s been a long time since the Jets made it or we made it. I wouldn’t be surprised if that last game decides who goes.”
He was half-right, anyway.