ATLANTA – This is not a task that I approach with relish. There's an unexpectedly optimistic feeling in town about the Bills right now. Fans are already contemplating the canonization of the new coach, Sean McDermott.
But Sunday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Bills play a football game on the road against a formidable opponent, and it's my duty to remind folks that things haven't gone very well in such circumstances in recent decades.
During the 17-year playoff drought, they have won 44 road games. Only 11 of those wins came against teams that finished the season with a winning record. Only three of those opponents won a playoff game that season.
Two were in recent years at New England, once in a meaningless finale when the Pats rested players and Tom Brady played a half, the other last year when Brady was suspended. The other was a memorably ugly, 16-13 overtime win at the Jets in Rex Ryan's first season in 2009. The Bills intercepted six passes that day – five off rookie Mark Sanchez – and gave up 318 yards rushing. Hardly an epic show.
I won't revisit the woeful chronicle of road losses. I do have a heart. But it's hard to recall the signature road wins. When I ask people to recall the Bills' last truly significant road win, people stumble for an answer. Uh, the win at Washington in '07, when Joe Gibbs tried to freeze the kicker?
So here we are, on the road against the Falcons, the defending NFC champions, who blew a 25-point lead against the Patriots in the Super Bowl and were supposed to suffer some kind of hangover. But they're 3-0, one of two remaining unbeaten teams in the NFL, ready for the second regular-season game in their shiny new, $1.6 billion retractable roof palace.
If they're hung over from February's collapse, you wouldn't know it. The Falcons are averaging 29 points a game (five fewer than last season, when they scored 540 points, the eighth-highest total in league history).
They're sixth in the league in total offense. Quarterback Matt Ryan, last year's MVP, is tied for fourth in passing. One running back, Devonta Freeman, is seventh in the NFL in rushing. The other, Tevin Coleman, is sixth in yards per carry. Atlanta has scored at least 28 points in its last 10 home games, including two highlight reel playoff wins last season.
"We’re excited for the opportunity," safety Jordan Poyer said. "We’re excited to go out there and play another football game, on the road, hostile environment in their new stadium. They’re going to be amped up in the end."
Fans ought to be excited. The Bills are solid, eight-point underdogs. Everyone had this checked off as a loss before the season, even before the Sammy Watkins trade. But if they pull the upset Sunday, it would radically alter the perception both locally and nationally – from a team in transition, if not the tank, to one that could make a serious playoff run.
There's no telling where things would go from there. After all, they've gotten off to promising starts before, only to fall apart later. But a win on Sunday would be their biggest of the 17-year drought.
In fact, a victory over the Falcons would be their biggest away from home since the 1993 AFC championship game, two weeks after the great comeback. That's the day Jim Kelly returned from injury and they won big in Miami to reach their third Super Bowl. That was also their last road playoff win.
There might be a rousing road win or two in there from 1995-99, but nothing springs quickly to mind. They haven't had a winning road record since 1999, when Doug Flutie led them to five road wins and it cost him his job.
Weak quarterback play has been the one constant. Tyrod Taylor's road woes have been well-chronicled, but he's hardly the only QB to come up small on the road. None of the other guys, including Drew Bledsoe, could rise up on the road when it truly mattered against an elite opponent.
Taylor needs to play the best road game of his life on Sunday. For all the talk about the Atlanta offense, it's their defense that could pose the biggest threat today. General Manager Thomas Dimitroff has put together a young, fast and extremely athletic group, the kind of unit that's suited for today's NFL game and one that will be a tough matchup for Taylor's speed.
The Falcons have playmakers all over the defense. They pounded Aaron Rodgers a couple of weeks ago in the first game at the new stadium. They're without their best player, pass rusher Vic Beasley, but they have the depth to compensate, including two versatile linebackers in Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell, and a solid secondary led by elite cornerback Desmond Trufant.
Taylor admitted that the Falcons' high-powered offense creates an unusual sense of urgency for the Buffalo offense. He said the offense needs to continue to improve by the week. Actually, it needs to be considerably better than it was at Carolina or against the Broncos, when LeSean McCoy rushed 26 times for just 30 yards over the two games.
"It boils down, again, to execution on the road," Taylor said during the week. "We have to be on our A game to come out on top."
The problem is, Taylor hasn't produced a grade-A performance on the road during his time as the Bills' starter. He has yet to outplay a top quarterback away from home. He still has just one career win in a game in which he has to throw 30 passes.
The Bills probably need to score more than 24 points to win Sunday. It's hard to be optimistic, based on recent events. But if the defense continues to play well, and Taylor makes some big plays on the move, they can stay close and maybe pull an upset that would rock the NFL.
A loss wouldn't be a disaster. Whatever happens Sunday, they can go to 3-0 in the AFC next week with a win at Cincinnati, which is actually more significant in the big picture. Keep that in mind, because reality has a way of intruding when they run into top teams on the road.