MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Now I know how players and coaches feel when they tell you something "hasn't sunk in yet". The improbable occurred just a few minutes ago, and I'm a bit stunned. To use a favorite expression of the head coach, Sean McDermott, I'm still struggling to process it all.
But it's true. The Bills are going to the playoffs. After 17 excruciating years, the longest playoff drought in major professional sports is over. The Bills beat the odds Sunday. They took care of their end of the bargain with a 22-16 victory over the hapless, disgraceful Dolphins and got the help they needed.
Now they'll be hitting the road next weekend for a wild-card matchup, against Jacksonville and former coach Doug Marrone. Of course. In a bizarro season in the AFC, what could be more fitting than the Bills facing Marrone in the playoffs?
You can't make this stuff up. How about Kyle Williams, the heart and soul of the team and its longest-standing member, scoring his first career touchdown on a one-yard run in the third quarter? Or an obscurity named Marcus Murphy leading the Bills' tailbacks in rushing yards?
When the news arrived that the Ravens had fallen to the Bengals, 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 be smiling at the news.
I could also picture Bills fans crying and hugging in living rooms and basements and bars afterwards. 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 also reflected on the 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.
No longer will we revert to the Music City Miracle as the last Bills playoff game. Finally, fans get to turn the page and prepare for a wild-card game in which the Bills will be a decided underdog, with all the pressure on the favorites.
The Bills knew they had to beat the Dolphins in the finale. Fatalistic fans figured the most typical Buffalo thing would be for them to get the help they needed and lose the game. But they played with passion and purpose against a Miami team that played a sloppy, uninspired game and turned to seldom-used backup quarterback David Fales early in the game.
It didn't matter who played QB for the Dolphins, though. The Bills weren't going to be denied in this spot. Tyrod Taylor was terrific, as he had been two weeks ago against Miami. Taylor, who had completed 65 percent of his passes for nine TDs and no picks against Miami coming in, had a a typically efficient performance against Miami.
The defense was opportunistic and unyielding. The secondary had an especially strong day against an unproven backup QB, giving up yards but keeping the Dolphins out of the end zone for most of the day and limiting big plays.
Entering the game, the odds of the Bills reaching the playoffs were somewhere between 17 and 22 percent, depending on your choice of analytics. But barely five minutes after the crucial slate of four AFC games began at 4:25 on Sunday afternoon, their hopes began to look a lot more promising.
At around 4:30 came the news that the underdog Bengals had gone ahead of the Ravens, 7-0. Just seconds later, Tyrod Taylor floated a 26-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Nick O'Leary to give the Bills a 7-0 lead over the Dolphins.
Just like that, things began to look a lot brighter for Bills fans who were dreaming of an end to the 17-year playoff drought. O'Leary's grandfather, golfing legend Jack Nicklaus, was cheering from the stands here. An omen?
Of course, no Bills success can occur without the accompanying dread of some late-game calamity that turns apparent victory into soul-crushing defeat.
Late in the first half, the Ravens broke a long kickoff return to get within seven points, 17-10 at halftime. In the third quarter, LeSean McCoy injured his ankle and had to be taken off the field on a cart.
The Ravens fell behind by 14 points to the Bengals in the third quarter, but missed a bushel of tackles on a 17-yard TD run by Alex Collins. So Baltimore was back within seven, despite a horrid day by quarterback Joe Flacco.
But the Bengals held on. The Ravens got a field goal from Justin Tucker to make it 24-20, causing Bills fans more consternation and then went ahead 27-24 on a Mike Wallace TD reception. They needed the Bengals to go on a game-winning drive, and the Bengals did. On fourth-and-12. On an Andy Dalton pass down the seam to Tyler Boyd with 44 seconds left. The Bengals won 31-27.
And for the first time in a generation, things fell the Bills way when it mattered most. Pinch yourself, the drought is over. On to the wild-card game.