You have to give the Bills a lot of credit. Heading into the game, their head coach had insisted they were still alive, still a contender for a playoff berth despite their 3-6 record and their miserable performance in New England the week before.
And on Sunday, they played like a team that still believed it had something to play for. On a day when former left guard Jim Ritcher went up on the Wall of Fame, the Bills put on a performance worthy of the Super Bowl teams, excelling in all three of football's major phases in a 37-17 victory over the St. Louis Rams.
Best of all, it was a treat to watch, the most entertaining afternoon of football we've seen since the snow game against Miami two years ago. At times, the Bills have been close to unwatchable this season, but this one was a darn good show -- if you can excuse the 26 penalties and the interminable fourth quarter.
It had a little bit of everything. The Bills tried a flea-flicker and it actually worked, with Drew Bledsoe heaving a 54-yard bomb to Sam Aiken after taking a wobbly pitch from Willis McGahee. Bledsoe threw three TDs to Mark Campbell. Takeo Spikes batted a pass into the air and intercepted it. Sam Adams intercepted a batted pass. It was that sort of day.
The special teams were sensational. In the space of 172 seconds early in the third quarter, the Bills got a 53-yard punt return from Jonathan Smith to set up a TD, an 86-yard punt return for a TD by Nate Clements and a fumble recovery by Jason Peters on a muffed kickoff. We hadn't seen anything quite like it since those wacky back-to-back home wins over the Broncos and Raiders in 1990, the first Super Bowl season.
"Oh, it makes it lovely," offensive tackle Jonas Jennings said of the special teams. "You're jumping out of your shoes. I think that's why we scored on the first play (after the Smith return)."
The home crowd was a huge factor, the 12th Man of old. Ritcher gave a moving testimonial to the fans during his halftime speech, calling them the franchise's one unfailing constant. It's easy to forget how loyal the football fans are in this town. Coming off an embarrassing loss to the Patriots on national TV, a sellout crowd packed the place and voiced their belief. They made a big difference.
The Rams' vaunted offense was discombobulated for much of the day. They made some plays in the passing game, but they couldn't establish a consistent rhythm amid the howling human din of Ralph Wilson Stadium. They had five false start penalties, a sure sign of a home crowd's involvement.
"All of it's the crowd," said defensive tackle Adams, who had another fine home game. "When the crowd is loud and you come in here, you're going to have problems with the snap count. When we're feeding off them, they allow us to get a good jump on the ball. When it's that loud, it speaks volumes for us, because we truly have home-field advantage."
It has been a disappointing season overall. But the Bills have finally reasserted the home-field dominance that was a hallmark during the '90s. They have won four straight home games, their longest winning streak at the Ralph since the height of Flutiemania in the 1998 season.
"It's just a pride thing about protecting your house," said Jennings. "You've got your fans behind you. You have your family and friends."
Now, if only they could figure out how to translate it to the road. Teams generally have a dropoff away from home, for the reasons Adams enumerated. But it's rarely this dramatic. It's confounding that a team could play so well at home and so poorly on the road.
So while Sunday was a day to remember, I'll hesitate to attach any great significance to it. The Bills are not a bad team, as they appeared to be in the first month of the season. But until they can win on the road, they're counterfeit Bills, the biggest frontrunners in the NFL. Really, how can the team that put on that display be winless on the road at Thanksgiving?
"How many years have you been asking that question?" Jennings said. "I don't magically have the answer for you. I don't know, man. It's easy to play at home. You're talking about assignments. You can hear each other; you can hear the snap count; you don't have to watch the ball. It's lot of variables that are different on the road than at home.
"But we've got to do it. Some kind of way, we've got to have the mentality to take it out there, take it on the road and play ball like we did today."
Nothing will really change as long as Bledsoe is the starting quarterback. Bledsoe is the ultimate home-field frontrunner. He had a solid day against St. Louis, but it's fool's gold. Winning home games doesn't change the fact that Bledsoe can't get it done away from Ralph Wilson Stadium.
That's the downside of a game like this. It gets the home fans excited and stirs some justifiable optimism for the future. But if it inspires a renewed and unrealistic belief that Bledsoe can be salvaged, that he can still be a winning quarterback in the NFL -- even into next season -- it's not worth it in the long run.
Four of the next five games are on the road, beginning next Sunday in Seattle. That alone should temper some of the giddiness about the Rams game. If the Bills are anything more than an average team, a team that defends its home turf and goes to pieces on the road, they'll have plenty of chances to prove it over the next five weeks.
"We have no choice," Jennings said. "We can't sink any further on the road. So maybe we'll try some different things. Maybe we'll try to do some different things we haven't done on the road."
Winning would be nice. That was a heck of a fun day, fellas, but let's see you take it on the road. Split these four road games, then come back and talk to me.