OAKLAND – This is what happens when you go 15 years without a playoff team. The few positive memories remained lodged in your subconscious. You have flashbacks. You start to see history repeating itself.
As I was flying somewhere over middle America on Saturday, I had the vague feeling that I’d done this before. Yes, it was almost exactly 10 years ago. The last time the Bills had a winning record this late in a season, they also headed to the Bay Area for the penultimate game of the year, needing a win to raise their record to 9-6 and keep their faint playoff hopes alive.
That year, the 15th game was against San Francisco, the day after Christmas. I see a lot of parallels to this year’s desperate playoff run, which resumes at 4:25 p.m. Sunday against a staggering, 2-12, Oakland team.
That 2004 team also rode a terrific defense, one that hit its stride late in the season, finished near the top of the NFL in several key categories and had a stout defensive line. It also had a 32-year-old statue at quarterback, in this case Drew Bledsoe, who was swiftly falling in stature with the fan base and the front office.
The Bills of ’04 also had a star rookie receiver whom they had drafted in the first round. It was Lee Evans, whose team record for rookie receiving yards was broken by Sammy Watkins last week against the Packers.
That team had also been written off earlier in the season after a dreadful performance in a national night game (at New England). But the Bills won five in a row after the Pats loss and needed to beat the Niners to set up a huge finale against the top seed in the AFC (the Steelers) with a possible playoff spot on the line.
That squad also swept its conference crossover, going 4-0 against a soft NFC West. Fans were lamenting an early loss that swung on a single, fateful play by a cornerback. That year, it was Nate Clements failing to bat down a pass in the final seconds of the opener against Jacksonville. This year, it was Bryce Brown’s fumble against the Chiefs.
Some people are calling this year’s defense the best in Bills history – and when you shut down Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers in successive weeks, you have a case. But the ’04 defense was a handful. It was statistically better than this year’s group and had a staggering 26 takeaways during that six-game win streak.
But there will be time for comparisons later. This year’s defense is writing its own story, and like the 2004 edition, I expect them to take care of business today in O.co Coliseum, or as I so fondly think of it, the “Black Hole.”
It might be difficult to get up for Derek Carr after rising up against the two top-rated QBs in NFL history, but this Bills defense will manage. They’re too hot, too inspired, too well-coached and too good to let up against a Raiders offense that struggles to run the ball or make big plays in the passing game.
The Bills’ defense has been seething about a perceived lack of respect all season. It must feel odd, actually being favored in a road game. They’ll miss being underestimated and playing with a chip on their shoulders. But they won’t look past the Raiders, not after finally breaking into the national conversation about the league’s best defenses.
“Of course not,” said tackle Marcell Dareus. “We’re going to play our game the best way we can. I can’t speak for them. I know we’ll do the best we can. They’re going to come out playing hard, and we want to play hard as well.”
They can’t afford to let the Raiders hang around today. Oakland is a bad team, one that might be ready to pack it in. But they’ve won two straight at home, and they came from behind in the fourth quarter to win both. They played solid defense in those wins, too, holding the opposition to a combined 20 percent (5 of 25) on third down.
The Bills need to play to their own elevated expectations and avoid playing down to the level of a team that might be looking at the top pick in the draft.
“Our focus is on ourselves,” said coach Doug Marrone. “We need to get better. We haven’t played that complete game that we’re looking for.”
Something tells me he’s talking about the offense, which hasn’t scored an offensive touchdown in the first half of the last three games. That’s sufficient reason for the seasoned fatalists to wonder if last week’s exhilarating win over the Packers isn’t setting up Bills fans for a big letdown.
Kyle Orton doesn’t need to be great today, but he has to play an efficient game. It shouldn’t be asking too much to outplay Carr. Otherwise, it could get a little sketchy. The Bills might have to rely on some big plays on defense and special teams. Did I point out that the 2004 team had 11 returns for touchdowns that season, including TDs on blocked punts and fumble returns?
Of course, we all remember what happened in the season finale that season. The defense crashed to Earth against a bunch of Pittsburgh backups and lost. They jettisoned Bledsoe and turned to J.P. Losman, with dubious results.
This Bills team has a chance to do that ’04 team one better, to win the last two and become the first Bills team to win 10 games since the last playoff edition of 1999 (which, incidentally, had an even better defense than the ’04 or ’14 squads).
Enjoy it while you can. They still have only a remote chance of making the playoffs, even if they win both of their remaining games. Winning 10 games and finally winning in New England would qualify as a success, even if they have to watch the postseason in their living rooms for a 15th straight January.
It could be something to build on, but there are no guarantees. That ’04 team couldn’t sustain it. They cut Bledsoe and let Pat Williams go in free agency because Tom Donahoe didn’t think he played hard every week. Takeo Spikes got hurt the next year and was never the same. It all fell apart in a hurry.
The Bills will try to keep this defense together. They’ll try to re-sign Jerry Hughes, who will be a free agent, and extend Dareus a year before his original deal expires. That will probably require them to restructure Mario Williams’s deal. If Mario is sincere about wanting to be on a playoff team, he’ll oblige.
But even so, you can never tell from year to year. Every NFL season is a distinct entity unto itself.
Players can get hurt. Some get paid big money. Some lose that urgency that comes when you’re playing for a big second contract.
Management intends to keep this team together, perhaps with a more capable free-agent quarterback, and take another run at the playoffs. But as we found out 10 years ago, a run of excellence doesn’t always carry on from one year to the next.
It’s been a nice run this year. The Bills are above .500 the week before Christmas for the first time in 10 years. They’re alive and kicking. That’s about as much as anyone could have imagined. But if they fall short, it’ll have a hollow feeling, because a great defense is a terrible thing to waste.