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Remembering the highs and lows of Bills' roller-coaster season that ended The Drought

Bills coach Sean McDermott said frequently this season that the team wanted to make moves that would help win now and in the future. Those goals can often seem at odds with each other, but the Bills were able to make several rebuilding moves and still qualify for the playoffs, thanks to a wild final hour of the season.

Here’s a look back at the roller-coaster ride that brought them here, with moments ranked either a 1 (panic or gloom; playoffs felt extremely unlikely), 2 (worry or doubt; playoffs felt unlikely), 3 (uncomfortable optimism; playoffs could maybe actually happen) or 4 (excitement and joy; the playoffs felt certain).

Jan. 11: The Bills named Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott their new head coach. He had never served in that role before. The 2016 Bills weren't terrible, but after 17 seasons without making the playoffs, another rebuilding year was expected. (2)

Feb. 28: The Bills declined to use the franchise tag on cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who sometimes drew the ire of Bills fans but was nonetheless a talented player. McDermott's rebuilding of the defense was underway. Gilmore would later sign for big money with the rival New England Patriots. (1.5)

March 8: The Bills restructured quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s contract to keep him with the team in a somewhat win-now move. The Bills weren’t far from the playoffs the previous two seasons with Taylor under center, and if McDermott could fix the defense, the team could have a shot. Many expected the Bills to part ways with Taylor and start fresh with someone new, likely a rookie. (2.5)

McDermott: Restructuring Taylor's contract was 'best move for the Bills at this time'

April 27: The Bills traded back in the draft from 10th overall to 27th and gained a 2018 first-round pick from Kansas City while the Chiefs moved up to take their quarterback of the future. It was the first of several trades that took a hit in the short-term for long-term benefit. (2)

Aug. 11: In a series of blockbuster trades, at least by NFL standards, the Bills sent receiver Sammy Watkins to the Rams for cornerback E.J. Gaines and a second-round pick, and also traded promising young cornerback Ronald Darby to the Eagles for Jordan Matthews and a third-round pick. Watkins had elite talent but struggled with injuries and Darby was said to have had trouble adjusting to McDermott’s defense, so there some rationale for the moves in the short term, but jettisoning these players while netting draft picks was another sign of rebuilding. (1.5)

Aug. 13: Matthews suffered a chip fracture in his sternum in his first practice with the team, because of course something bad would happen to the Bills. He was declared week-to-week. (1.5)

Aug. 20: Veteran receiver Anquan Boldin announced his retirement from football less than two weeks after signing with the Bills. He claimed it was to focus on humanitarian efforts, but Bills fans couldn’t help but feel as if Boldin would’ve stayed if the team was better. (1.5)

Anquan Boldin informs Bills he's retiring

Regular season begins: The remainder of the offseason also saw holdovers Reggie Ragland, Cardale Jones and Kevon Seymour all traded. The team was clearly rebuilding. The News’ seven staff reporters/columnists picked the Bills for between four and seven wins, and none had them making the playoffs. A roundup of a dozen national preseason power rankings saw the Bills ranked between 26th and 31st. (1)

Sept. 10: The Bills beat the Jets in a game New York media described as the “Tank Bowl,” though the Bills were not thought to be tanking by most local observers. The 21-12 final score, however, was mildly concerning given how bad the Jets were expected to be, though the Jets would end up surpassing expectations. (1)

Sept. 17: The Bills narrowly lost to the Panthers, 9-3, and would have won if Taylor and rookie Zay Jones had connected on a late pass near the end zone. McDermott’s defense looked legit, but the Bills offense gave reason to worry. (1.5)

Sept. 24: The Bills beat the Broncos, 26-16, during the few weeks quarterback Trevor Siemian was a hot commodity. The win seemed big at the time, but faded in importance as the Broncos continued to struggle. (2)

Oct. 1: The dream of the playoffs felt real for the first time after the Bills knocked off the NFC-champion Falcons, 23-17, scoring one of the team’s best road wins in some time. They’d be 4-0 if Zay Jones had scored that touchdown, people thought. It could happen! (3)

Jerry Sullivan: This win feels a little bit different

Oct. 8: Scratch that. The Bills lost in Billsy fashion to the Bengals, 20-16, and reminded fans why they don’t let themselves dream of the playoffs much anymore. The second you get your hopes up … this happens. (2)

Oct. 22: What’s this? A fourth-quarter comeback? With a late break going the Bills’ way? The Bills scored 10 points in the final two and a half minutes to rally on the Buccaneers, 30-27, after the bye week. LeSean McCoy’s late fumble nearly gave the game away, but Tre’Davious White forced and recovered a fumble in the last minute to set the Bills up for a winning field goal. The win came against an injured Jameis Winston, but a 4-2 record is nothing to scoff at in these parts. (2.5)

Oct. 26: Anquan Boldin attempted to come out of retirement and was granted permission by the Bills to have his agent try to find a team Boldin could be traded to before the deadline. There were no takers, but the message was clear: Boldin might want to play football … but not for the Bills. (2.5)

Report: Anquan Boldin wants to play again; Bills grant his request to seek trade

Oct. 27: The Bills traded defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, a former third-overall pick, to the Jaguars for a conditional sixth-round draft pick (that is now a fifth). The move was clearly made to unload Dareus’ massive contract, as well as to remove a repeat problem player from the roster. Dareus was no longer playing at an elite level, but losing him did subtract from the talent level on the defense. (2)

Oct. 29: The Bills beat the Raiders to improve to 5-2 – one of the highest points they had reached over the drought. The defense gave up 300 yards passing for the third game in a row, which had never happened before in franchise history, but standing just half a game behind the Patriots after two months of play was a good sign. (2.5)

Oct. 31: Wow! After telling reporters the team was done for the day, GM Brandon Beane pulled off a last-minute trade before the 4 p.m. deadline, acquiring receiver Kelvin Benjamin from the Panthers for a third- and seventh-round draft pick in a clear win-now move. (3)

Bills make last-second trade for Panthers receiver Kelvin Benjamin

Nov. 2: Woof, the Bills laid an egg against the Jets on national television, losing 34-21 in a Thursday night game. The Bills had a chance to reach new heights – they had never been 6-2 over the drought – so of course they blew it. The defense was nowhere to be found against a weaker opponent and the offensive line struggled, leaving Bills fans with an uneasy feeling. (2)

Nov. 12: The Saints embarrassed the Bills in Orchard Park, rushing for 298 yards and six touchdowns in a 47-10 beatdown. As bad as some of the defensive performances were under Rex Ryan, this one was worse. (1)

Nov. 15: Whoa: McDermott announced in his Wednesday press conference that he was benching Taylor for rookie Nathan Peterman, despite saying Sunday and Monday that Taylor would be the team’s quarterback. Peterman had played well in garbage time the week before against Saints backups but was a fifth-round pick with no career starts. Some viewed the move as playing for next season while others felt McDermott legitimately thought Peterman gave the Bills a better chance to win. (1)

Nov. 19: Holy cow, was Peterman terrible. McDermott’s big decision blew up in his face as Peterman posted one of (if not the) worst quarterbacking games in NFL history, throwing five interceptions in the first half before getting benched. He completed six passes to Bills and five to Chargers while the defensive freefall continued in the 54-24 humiliation, which brought the Bills to 5-5 and temporarily extinguished playoff dreams. Making things even worse, Kelvin Benjamin tore his meniscus in the first quarter. Only the five wins the Bills already had in the bank, a weak AFC, and a presumed return to Taylor gave fans hope. (1)

Tony Kornheiser says Sean McDermott should be fired for Nathan Peterman debacle

Nov. 26: Taylor was back under center in a big game for McDermott against his mentor, Chiefs coach Andy Reid, and the Bills did just enough to pull out a 16-10 victory. It was the Chiefs’ fifth loss in their last six games after starting 5-0, so fans weren’t sure how to take it, but the ship was at least temporarily righted after one of the worst months of football over the drought. (2)

Dec. 3: The Bills lost to the Patriots in the first of three straight December home games, 23-3, but people didn’t give the result much thought. It was another ho-hum loss to Tom Brady and the Pats, who won their eighth straight game. More concerning was the fact that Taylor left the game on a cart with a knee injury. The team still had a shot at 6-6, but not if it had to go back to Peterman the rest of the way. (1.5)

Dec. 10: In a game that will be remembered forever thanks to a driving, lake-effect snowstorm, the Bills prevailed against the Colts in overtime, 13-7. Peterman started the game but suffered a concussion, so third-string QB and special teams ace Joe Webb had to lead the team to victory in a game the Bills couldn’t lose. Was all that precipitation a sign the drought was ending? (2.5)

Dec. 17: Taylor returned to action and the Bills beat the Dolphins, 24-16, to improve to 8-6 with two games remaining. The Bills’ playoff hopes were still alive, but they needed other teams to lose and still had another game against the Patriots. (3)

Dec. 24: The Bills were tied with the Patriots at halftime, 13-13, but would’ve had the lead if not for a disputed reversal of a touchdown reception from Benjamin at the end of the second quarter. Bills fans felt robbed again while the Patriots pulled away late, 37-16. The loss didn’t eliminate the Bills, but they didn’t get any help from other teams, either. (2.5)

Week 17: Could this really happen? The Bills entered the regular-season finale against Miami needing a win and either a Ravens loss to the Bengals or both a Titans loss to the Jaguars and a Chargers loss to the Raiders. All three teams the Bills needed to lose were expected to win. (2.5)

Path to the playoffs: What happens to the Bills in every Week 17 scenario

Dec. 31: The Bills took care of business on their end with a win while the Dolphins sat starting QB Jay Culter after one drive to get a look at backup David Fales. A late interception sealed the 22-16 victory, but the Bills still needed help. The Chargers and Titans led in their games throughout the day, but the Ravens were struggling against the Bengals. (3.5)

Dec. 31, 7:24 p.m.: Ughhhhh, scoreboard watching kicked into hyperdrive as the Ravens took their first lead of the day with just under 9 minutes to play. If the results held, the Bills would be eliminated. (2)

Dec. 31, 7:50 p.m.: The Bengals faced fourth and 12 from near midfield with less than a minute to go. Over the last 10 years, teams only gained the necessary yardage on third- or fourth-and-12 or longer 15.7 percent of the time. A stop would send the Ravens to the playoffs and eliminate the Bills. (1)

Dec. 31, 7:51 p.m.: ARE YOU KIDDING?!? Bengals QB Andy Dalton hit Tyler Boyd for a first down, and he evaded defenders all the way to the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown. (3.9)

Dec. 31, 7:52 p.m.: Blood pressures rose dramatically across Western New York. There was still 44 seconds on the clock. The Ravens could still come back. Nothing was sealed yet. After 17 years of this, Bills fans knew better than to get ahead of themselves. (3.8)

Dec. 31, 7:58 p.m.: The Ravens turned the ball over on downs! The Bengals lined up in victory formation! The Bills made the playoffs! … Right? Does that check out? Is this really happening? ... YES IT IS! The drought was mercifully put to rest, 6,568 days since the Bills’ last playoff appearance. (4)

Playoff tick-tock: Minute-by-minute review of how the Buffalo Bills ended their 17-year playoff drought

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