Andy Dalton couldn't help but laugh Monday when he was told he had become the most popular guy in Buffalo, the toast of a tormented football town. It must have been strange for the Bengals' quarterback to learn he had just thrown the biggest pass in the Bills' recent history.
Dalton felt the love from #billsmafia after hitting Tyler Boyd with a 49-yard touchdown strike on fourth-and-12 in a 31-27 victory over the Ravens, propelling the Bills into the playoffs for the first time in 18 seasons. Sure enough, he was bombarded on social media with messages of thanks and praise from Bills fans.
"I know just from my Twitter," Dalton said by phone Monday. "You would think I played for the Bills, the way the reaction was from my Twitter. I know there are a lot of appreciative people out there after we won yesterday."
Dalton clearly doesn't know Buffalo. When someone shovels your sidewalk or gives you a ride to the airport, people in Buffalo are appreciative. When someone lifts the Bills into the playoffs, ending the longest postseason drought in major professional sports, people in Buffalo are off their rockers.
No matter how hard he tried Monday, no matter how many ways it was explained, Dalton couldn't fully grasp why Bills fans went bonkers after his touchdown toss. He didn't just help the Bills into the playoffs. He lifted an entire community. He did something no Buffalo player had done in 18 years:
He restored hope in a long-suffering fan base.
"Obviously, we would like to be in the playoffs," Dalton said. "But to see the satisfaction of a different fan base for us getting the win, I still think that's pretty cool. But, yeah, just what we were able to do, and the drama with the way it happened, the fourth-down play, it just adds to the story."
But that was only part of the story.
The Bills sent the Bengals a letter that read:
After we handled business in Miami, we needed you, and you came through bigtime. On behalf of this team, the people of the City of Buffalo, and Bills fans around the world, thank you. Thank you. THANK YOU.
Wings on us. (No, really, we're sending wings.)
The Buffalo Bills
The Bengals posted a tweet: "Not gonna lie, all you @buffalobills fans are a lot of fun. And YES. It really did happen. We have the game recap to prove it." And there was this from the Bengals, on Dalton: "3 TD Passes. 1 Win. And likely a lifetime of free Buffalo Wings."
Micah Hyde delivered a message through the media after the game: “Andy Dalton, you heard it here first, I love you man, I love you.”
Said Jerry Hughes on Dalton: “Oh, he’s getting Edible Arrangements. If he wants some Budweiser, he’s getting that. Whatever he wants, I’m going to be his Secret Santa for the rest of this week.”
More than anyone else, however, Dalton's touchdown pass breathed life into tortured souls in Buffalo who kept coming back no matter the weather or the record while enduring 17 years of futility. A few weeks ago, Colts cornerback Rashaan Melvin gushed over Bills fans for sitting through the Snow Bowl.
"Buffalo Bills has got to have the most super loyal fans of all sports," Melvin said via Twitter. "Especially the ones in the nosebleeds, who couldn’t even see the game. #Salute @NFL @buffalobills #imsicknow"
For all the rage Bills fans have shown while rooting against certain quarterbacks (see: Brady, Tom), they're equally passionate and feel deeply indebted toward anyone who has helped Buffalo's cause. Dalton could be the first player in history who became a fan favorite without playing a single game for the Bills.
Dalton actually could have played for Buffalo. The Bills selected safety Aaron Williams one pick before the Bengals took Dalton in the 2011 draft. The Bills continued swinging and missing on quarterbacks while he led the Bengals to the playoffs four times. He's 0-4 in the postseason, making him a perfect fit for Buffalo.
OK, that was unnecessary roughness.
This is not: It took someone who played in the postseason, for another team in another game, to make the biggest play of the Bills' playoff drought. Dalton was among many who watched from afar while the Bills and their fans celebrated, and he quietly enjoyed the moment with them.
"I've seen some of the videos of the reactions from everybody in Miami's stadium to the locker room and all that stuff," Dalton said. "I'm good buddies with Jerry Hughes. He was saying he was going to take me to a steak dinner. It has been a fun reaction. There's a lot of people who said they were going to send me stuff. We'll see."
Indeed, he will.
Buffalo will forever have a soft spot for Dalton. Never mind the fact he contributed to the Bills' dilemma Sunday when he threw for 328 yards passing and hit A.J. Green with a 77-yard TD pass in a 20-16 win over Buffalo in Week 5. Let bygones be bygones after he helped the Bills into the postseason, right?
Donations flowed into the Andy and Jordan Dalton Foundation (www.andydalton.org) in $17 increments, a buck for each year of the playoff drought. He announced on Twitter Monday evening that the foundation had raised more than $57,000 from 2,500 donors. Tuesday afternoon, the amount was over $100,000. Seneca Greenhouse in West Seneca changed its sign to read, "Thank You Andy Dalton" while other local businesses and Bills fans pledged to send him chicken wings, liquor and heaven knows what else. He'll learn that's how Buffalo rolls.
"It's all part of the #billsmafia," Dalton said. "That's what my timeline looks like right now. There's just a lot of happy people."
Bills fans haven't cheered for any Bills player the way they cheered for Dalton since Buffalo was going to four consecutive Super Bowls. The guy could relocate to Buffalo and never pay for another beer. At the very least, he can fully expect a standing ovation the next time Cincinnati comes to town in 2019.
The Bills might as well add him to their Wall of Fame. Or how about renaming a stretch of road near New Era Field to Andy Dalton's Pass?
Dalton cleaned out his locker Monday with the Bengals and began preparations to head back to Texas, his home state, for the offseason. I suggested he postpone his plans and take a ride to Buffalo. He could spend the week with newfound friends who would line up to thank him.
"Hey," Dalton said. "I'm glad I could help out."
Andy, you have no idea.