A show of hands, please. I'd like to know how many people actually saw this coming. When the Bills stumbled into the bye week with a three-game losing streak and a 2-5 record, looking as battered, bent and forlorn as the region's damaged trees, did anyone really believe they were capable of this?
Who could have imagined that this young team would come of age so soon, that they'd turn the record upside down and go 5-2 after the break, evening their record at 7-7 with two weeks left in the NFL season? I sure didn't. After that brutal home loss to the Patriots, I figured they'd be lucky to win four games.
If you would have told me we'd be talking playoffs with two weeks to go, I'd have thought you were crazy. The most ardent fans might not have believed it.
"I know, but Coach Jauron did," said right guard Duke Preston. "To be dead honest, he did. He told us, 'A lot of teams that are hot now aren't going to stay hot. And a lot of teams that are cold now are going to get hot.' That was a quote. That's what he told us, straight-out, going into the bye week."
Dick Jauron was right. The coach believed, and the players believed, and the team that looked dead in October is among the hottest teams in the league a week before Christmas. If there were any doubts, Sunday's 21-0 thrashing of the Dolphins proved the Bills are a team on the rise, capable of playing with anyone.
They're a good team right now. There, I said it. Not average or mediocre. A good team. A team worth watching. Again, it's not my job to tell people how to spend their money. But this is not the same team that bored us to tears in the early part of the season, not by a long shot.
For the second straight week, Buffalo played a hot AFC East rival and was the superior team. Defensively, the Bills were dominant after a slow start. Offensively, they were deadly efficient against a Miami defense that had shut out Tom Brady and New England by an identical 21-0 score the previous week.
J.P. Losman threw three touchdown passes, two against the wind. He played a near-perfect game, and it seems almost like an afterthought. Glory be, we've finally advanced beyond the stage where we pick apart every tiny detail of Losman's performance to see if he's going to survive long term.
The NFL is a big-play league. Once again, the Bills made big plays. Losman threw a gorgeous 37-yard bomb to Lee Evans. Josh Reed ran over half the Dolphins defense on a 27-yard TD catch. Losman hit Robert Royal, who has suddenly scored a TD in three straight games, for a 33-yard score.
Nate Clements (insert sound of ringing cash register here) made another interception and helped shut down Chris Chambers, who had embarrassed him at Miami a year ago. Linebacker Keith Ellison -- the surprise of the rookie class, according to defensive coordinator Perry Fewell -- had an interception, too.
There are a lot of surprises on this team -- to the outsider's perspective. But it is no surprise to the men inside the Bills' locker room, who have been gathering confidence and belief with each passing week.
"It's not a surprise to me," said left tackle Jason Peters, "because [we were] 2-5 but we could easily have been 5-2. We lost a bunch of close games early in the season, games I wish we had back now. But we're at 7-7 now, and we're going to take it week by week and see what happens."
Peters was nursing a sore knee, but he said there was no way he was going to miss a game with the Bills in the "playoff hunt." Roll that around your tongue for a while. Playoff hunt. They're still a long shot, but they're still alive.
The league's blackout rule seems silly and shortsighted at a time like this. The NFL is a television phenomenon. By keeping these last three home games off TV, the league missed a great opportunity to sell the Bills' young, surging team to a dubious but historically faithful public.
Sellout or not, the atmosphere inside Ralph Wilson Stadium has been as rousing as ever. Maybe the Miami rivalry isn't what it used to be, but the place was rocking like old times. The Bills are winning over the crowd again, and they've regained their home-field edge. On a rainy, wind-swept December day, the Dolphins looked like a team that couldn't wait to get back on the plane to Florida.
"Bills-Dolphins, in some gnarly weather -- it doesn't get much better than that on a Sunday," Preston said. "It was a good atmosphere, even at the end. Whoever stayed, they were going nuts for the shutout."
The final seconds were a rollicking good time, with the Bills' defense forced to make a goal-line stand against the Dolphins and -- shall we utter his name? -- their offensive coordinator, former Bills coach Mike Mularkey.
Ryan Denney batted down a pass by Cleo Lemon on the final play, preserving the Bills' first shutout of Miami since 1987 -- a year when another evolving Bills team gave hints of big things to come. But I'm getting carried away. As Jauron said, the Bills are gaining confidence. They've come a long way since the bye, but they still have a long way to go.
"You always suffer with the losses," Jauron said. "But I think the great thing about sport in general is that hope springs eternal. Week to week, you've got to get over the losses quickly. You've got to get over the wins quickly and go to the next one, and get ready to play. I think that's why we all like it so much."