MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Kyle Williams said the end of the Ravens-Bengals game had to be the longest 30 seconds of his life, and that includes some memorably grim finishes during his 12-year Bills career.
He remembers the locker room exploding when Andy Dalton hit Tyler Boyd for a 49-yard touchdown on fourth down in the final minute. Guys were hollering and celebrating, sensing that they were about to make the playoffs. Williams stayed calm. After years of late crushing endings, he knew better than to assume a thing.
"No, because I'm looking at the clock, the 30 seconds, the three timeouts," Williams said in a jubilant Bills locker room Sunday evening. "Everybody's jumping up and down. I'm thinking, no, I have to see the double zeroes, I have to see this over."
I'm sure Bills fans could relate. How many times had they seen apparent joy turn to soul-crushing loss? Like Kyle Williams, they had suffered through the Leodis McKelvin fumble game, the Dallas loss on Monday night, countless other calamities in the drought.
But this time, the Bills persevered. On a wild Sunday New Year's Eve, they took care of business with a 22-16 win over the Dolphins – getting a typically strong game from Tyrod Taylor against Miami – then went to the locker room and hoped for an improbable Cincinnati comeback over Baltimore in the final minute.
"That's surr-real, you understand me?" said defensive end Ryan Davis. "I was watching the Ravens score the whole game. I got in the locker room and it was, 'Oh, man. Fourth down.' Storybook. Andy Dalton. All I can say is God loves us. He loves Buffalo. It's our year."
It's surreal but true. After 17 excruciating years, the longest playoff drought in major professional sports is over. The Bills beat the odds, which said they had a 17-22 percent chance to get in on the final day. They play at Jacksonville in a wild-card matchup against former Bills coach Doug Marrone. Of course. What could be more surreal than facing Marrone in the playoffs?
You can't make this stuff up. Williams, the heart and soul of the team and its longest-standing member, got his first playoff berth and his first NFL touchdown on the same day, scoring on a 1-yard run in the third quarter to give them a 19-3 lead. An obscurity named Marcus Murphy led the Bills' tailbacks in rushing yards. Naturally, they gave their fans a scare, surviving a successful Dolphins onside kick.
But they won. When the clocked reached double zeroes in Baltimore, a number of thoughts flashed through my mind. I thought of all the Bills who had fallen short during the drought, guys like Takeo Spikes and George Wilson and Ryan Fitzpatrick and Fred Jackson. They all had to smile and feel a connection after this one .
I could also picture Bills fans crying and hugging in homes and bars afterward. Maybe the standard is lower nowadays, and the Bills are one of the most unlikely playoff teams ever, but tell that to a legion of young fans who had no memory of their team reaching the postseason.
And of course, I thought of late owner Ralph Wilson, who would have taken great delight in seeing his team snap the drought against a Dolphins team that used to be the Bills' most hated rival.
The drought was seconds from reaching voting age. Now it's finally done. The Bills are a 9-7 wild card, hoping to make an AFC playoff run. Williams admitted he was an emotional wreck, and his red face showed it, but he was looking to get back to work.
"I'm thinking I get to play next week," he said, "and I get to give you the same answers for another week. I'm excited. I'm excited for our guys. I'm excited for our organization, I'm excited for our fans, who deserve it as much as anybody.
"And I'm grateful. There's been so much hard work to get here, sticking it out," Williams said. His voice cracked and he looked out as his teammates celebrated in the dressing room. "And I'm not ... I'm not leaving until this gets done!"
Williams said he ran over to his wife, Jill, in the stands after the victory. His 6- and 4-year old boys, Reed and Gray, were standing in his locker in the victorious dressing room, wearing blue and red No. 95 jerseys. Kyle admitted he had shed some tears when the playoff berth was a reality. Now there's another game to play.
"I've told you guys before, my goal has never been to go to the playoffs, play an extra week and go home. We've got a long road to go and a tough road, but next week's a start. It's not a finish for us. We'll focus up and go to work and get ready to play a playoff game, and I couldn't be more excited."
He was pretty geeked about the TD run, "I'm starting my 10K chase. I've got 9,999 to go. One step at a time, we'll get there together."
Whether they have LeSean McCoy is another matter. McCoy hurt his ankle and had to be taken off in a cart. It didn't look good after the game, which makes it hard to feel optimistic about their chances against the Jags next Sunday.
"We're playoff bound!" said defensive back Leonard Johnson, who had a solid game.
"We haven't been able to say that in 17 years!" shouted rookie Tre'Davious White. "Coach McDermott had a vision when he brought this rookie class in. He said we were going to be part of the biggest turnaround in sports history. He'd tell us that every week, no matter what.
"And what he said came true today. It's a one-game season now. We're in the playoffs now. Anything can happen. Anything."
Johnson said he wished he had remembered to bring his "Playoff Caliber" shirt. White said they'd have to change them to "Super Bowl" caliber now.
I asked if they really felt they could make a run. After all, they're the underdogs. They both started hooting at me.
"Underdog?" White squealed. "When you in, you ain't the underdog. That little mouse exited the room, man. It's over. It's a new era. It's a new franchise, a new everything. It ain't no underdog no more. Everybody's equal now."
Well, the kid's a rookie. White is one-for-one as a Bill making the playoffs; he'll probably expect it every year. If McDermott tells him to respect the process, that they're going to make history, who's to question him?
For the first time since January of 2000, they have a second season to prepare for. From the elder statesman to the wide-eyed rookie, in a year when no one expected them to make it this far, they never stopped believing.
They won't stop now, not until the clock on this remarkable season reaches double zeroes.