Richie Incognito says he looks forward to reading my columns after Bills games, especially the losses. He smiles, but he's not joking. The three-time Pro Bowl guard uses critics and skeptics as fuel for motivation. But as it turns out, Richie was one of them.
Last Wednesday, we were talking about the Bills being in the playoff hunt heading into the final home game Sunday at New Era Field, and how few people expected them to be above .500 this late in the season.
"I picked you guys to go 4-12 this season," I said. "What did you think?"
"My thoughts kind of aligned with what you just said," Incognito replied. "I mean, honestly, I didn't know. I didn't know what we were going to do. And we came out and it was a new feeling and we played the Jets and got the win. Atlanta, Denver, we started getting some signature wins and you start believing. You start getting some swag."
Aside from the Pro Bowls, Incognito hasn't had much reason to swagger during his 13-year NFL career, which has been sullied by injuries, lifestyle issues, charges of dirty play and one highly publicized suspension for bullying that cost him the entire 2014 season.
Oh, and another thing:
"I've never been on a winning team," he said. "Never. Not in the NFL. Best I've ever done is 8-8. So I'm used to this, you know? I'm kind of used to just muddling through November and December, barely being there and having hopes and mathematically being in there in week 15, 16 and 17. So no, this ain't nothing new for me."
The situation in Buffalo suits him. In fact, Incognito's career record is worse than the Bills during the drought. His teams are 65-108, a .377 winning percentage. In the 17-year drought, the Bills are 112-160, or .412. There was one stretch from 2008-09, between the Rams and his first brief stint in Buffalo, when he played in 20 consecutive losses.
Incognito gets what Bills fans have gone through, because it's been the story of his own career. He has endured dysfunction, embarrassment and chronic defeat. But like a Buffalo fan, having suffered through it has toughened him, made him appreciate the struggle even more.
Some folks might wince to hear it, but Richie comes off as a Buffalo guy. He's a volatile sort -- OK, maybe a little bit nuts. He's passionate, engaging and honest, sometimes obnoxious. The bullying episode was reprehensible, and he paid dearly for it, but in the culture of an NFL locker room, he is thought of as a leader.
Incognito is the type of guy who would have been out in the snow with his shirt off last week if he were a fan, reveling in the experience. He also knows how tiresome it can be to arrive at this point every year, hovering around .500 and clinging to playoff hope.
"I know, I know," he said. "Hey, it would be nice to be 11-2 at this point. The fans deserve it. Everyone around this organization deserves it. You guys as reporters deserve it! You guys have been Groundhog Day and gloom and doom.
"This is about you guys!" Incognito said, laughing. "Let's call a spade a spade. You're up there writing all these articles and nobody's reading them cause we're not going to the dang playoffs."
He has a point. After two decades of ceaseless woe, I'm sick of me, too. It's nice sometimes to simply treasure the moment. The Bills are 7-6, better than most skeptics could have imagined. They're alive for the playoffs entering the last home game of the season, with a chance to finish 6-2 at New Era, their best home record in 18 years.
Incognito says they have to win their last three games to make the playoffs. At 9-7, they would have a chance, but be on shaky ground. Today is the first time the Bills have entered a game against Miami in December with a winning record since 2000, the first year of the drought. It's not exactly Kelly vs. Marino, but it's a big game, nonetheless.
A Bills season seems to fly by more swiftly every year, like Christmas. It seems just the other day they won in Atlanta. There's no telling where things go from here. Getting to 8-6 guarantees nothing. They reached 8-6 in 2014 and lost to a bad Oakland team. Winning a big game at New England will be much more daunting.
But the home finale matters. I'm sure the fans will savor it, regardless of past letdowns. The resilience of the hard-core group is amazing. I was stunned to see the lower bowl nearly filled in the blizzard last week. Maybe tickets were going for $4 on the secondary market, but the diehards were out in force. It was the sort of day that made the late Steve Sabol love bringing NFL Films to Buffalo.
Today could be the final home game for defensive tackle Kyle Williams and Lorenzo Alexander, good guys and leaders who will be 35 next season. Incognito will also be 35 and has a salary cap hit of $7.5 million next season. Tyrod Taylor will almost surely be gone.
It's been a bumpy first season for Sean McDermott. He has taken a justified heat for the a rash quarterback switch and the punt in OT last week. It gets tiresome hearing about the process. But his team hasn't quit on him and is still alive for a playoff spot a week before Christmas, which is amazing for a team ranked 26th in offense and 23rd in defense.
You could argue that it's all a tease, that the Bills would have been better off going in the tank and getting a higher draft pick. But every NFL season is its own entity. When you're on the wrong side of 30 and you've never made the playoffs, it's about now.
Incognito nodded toward veteran center Eric Wood, who was standing at the adjacent locker. "He's in the same boat. We talk about it all time," he said.
"It's been discussed," said Wood, who came to the Bills nine years ago, nine years after the drought began. "Neither of us wants to end our career without getting a chance in the dance."
A lot of good players have gone through Buffalo without reaching the playoffs, good guys like Chris Kelsay, George Wilson, Terrence McGee, Takeo Spikes and Ryan Fitzpatrick. When you play more than a decade and never win, it leaves a hole in your career.
"There's so much that goes into it," Incognito said. "I can only control so much. I can only block so many people."
He seemed to block half the Indy team on LeSean McCoy's winning run in overtime last week. Richie's right. You can only do so much, and this Bills team has been stretching its vast limitations all season. But they're still alive, still in the hunt.
All things considered, it's the best anyone could have hoped for. Judging by what I saw last week, Bills fans will enjoy it while they can.