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Jerry Sullivan: Enjoy the moment, but keep standards high

Jerry Sullivan

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — So how much have Bills fans donated to Andy Dalton's foundation at this point? Is it up to half a million yet? How about those billboards? We've certainly come a long way since fans paid for billboards on the 190 calling for Dick Jauron's firing.

I'd almost forgotten how much fun the playoffs can be. There's a palpable energy in town. You can feel it at the coffee shops, in the media and locker room, in schools and churches and bars. Bills coach Sean McDermott said he received a letter of support from a first-grade class.

On Friday, I was listening to sports radio in my car and smiled when they discussed the wild-card games. They were talking about the Bills! After 18 years, they're actually part of the discussion. This means I don't do my annual review of the first weekend, talking ruefully about all the Buffalo connections on other teams.

My mind flashed back to Jan. 6, 1990, when another 9-7 Bills team lost in Cleveland. They used to bring us down to the field for the last few minutes in those days. We watched the final drive from the back of the end zone. Ronnie Harmon was a few yards away from me when he dropped Jim Kelly's pass.

I see myself in the Adelphia Stadium press box a decade later, on Jan. 8, 2000, after Steve Christie kicked a 41-yard field goal to give the Bills a 16-15 lead. I stood up and walked to my left, where I leaned down to tell the late Larry Felser that I planned to do my column on quarterback Rob Johnson.

We all know what happened next. I swear my seat was directly up from the 25-yard line, where Kevin Dyson caught the disputed throwback pass from Frank Wycheck and raced 75 yards for the winning touchdown.

When the Bills and Jaguars kick it off Sunday afternoon, it will be one day short of 18 years since that fateful play in Tennessee. Some feel it was a curse, cast on the team when Wade Phillips obeyed Ralph Wilson's order to play Johnson over Doug Flutie. Whatever the case, it's over. A new era begins.

The outpouring of love and support for the team has been remarkable, a reminder of how passionate Buffalo fans can be. During the Super Bowl years, Andre Reed said fans wouldn't truly appreciate what they had until much later. Having suffered through the drought, they realize how precious any playoff run can be.

But fans should be wary of falling under another curse — the curse of lowered expectations. On NFL Network, they read a tweet from a Bills fan who said he didn't care if they lost 40-0 on Sunday. It was enough that the longest playoff drought in American sports was over. They weren't the joke of the nation anymore.

Look, I don't want to diminish the emotional and psychic benefit of what happened last Sunday. But the standard should be higher than sneaking in at 9-7 with a team that, statistically, is one of the worst NFL teams ever to make the playoffs.

Jerry Sullivan: Drought-plagued former Bills share in the joy and relief

The standard used to be a lot higher. When I came to Buffalo in '89, reaching the postseason wasn't a dream, but an expectation. From 1988-99, the Bills and Sabres combined to reach the playoffs 21 times with three misses. Sunday will be the first playoff game for either since the Sabres lost to the Flyers in the first round in 2011.

Now it's cause for joy when the Bills finish 9-7, or when the Sabres get a point in overtime and Jack Eichel actually earns his $80 million for a full month. Sometimes, I think Pegula Sports and Entertainment has become more about the entertainment, and ticket sales, than the sports.

Jerry Sullivan: It's simply surreal – the Buffalo Bills are in the playoffs

Marv Levy used to say that if you pay too much attention to the fans, you'll wind up sitting with them. Over recent years, Buffalo's two teams have been too concerned with selling false hope and tickets, with overpaying for big name coaches and free-agent players to appease an impatient fan base.

The good news is that the Pegulas don't have fans running the Bills. In McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane, they have two leaders who aren't content with simply getting into the playoffs and ending the drought.

Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane surprised fans in the parking lot before the Nov. 12 game against the Saints at New Era Field.  The Saints trampled the Bills, 47-10. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Oh, they understand it. McDermott often expresses his amazement at the loyalty of the fans. But the objective is much larger. He and Beane didn't create buzz by bringing in big names this season, but by moving them out. They cut ties with nine first- or second-round picks in a year, and somehow still made the playoffs.

McDermott and Beane have won a lot of faith among the fans by getting in. They've accumulated vital draft currency, but they've also gained the currency to make hard moves in the future, even if it means getting rid of popular players or regressing in the short term.

There could be a tendency for fans to become sentimental after breaking the drought and thinking management can let up. When he heard the words "let up," McDermott interrupted and became more animated than I'd seen him in quite awhile.

"Oh, no. No," he said. "You got my attention in a hurry right there. There's another level, and that's what we all have to understand here. There's another level that we all have to build towards.

"That continued this week as we prepared for this game, and it will continue next week and the week after and the week after that, whether we're playing or not. It'll continue, and that's part of the overall vision."

There's a lot of talk about "changing the culture," which goes beyond signing players. As for sheer talent, this Bills team is one of the least formidable ever to make the NFL playoffs. The numbers show it. But the players believe there's something real and sustainable going on.

"I'm not just saying this because he's my coach," said safety Micah Hyde, "but Sean McDermott is going to change this place. He already has. My message to the rest of the league is, 'Pay attention to what he's doing.You want to talk bad about Buffalo? 'I don't want to go to Buffalo?' I said the same thing. But once you get here, you understand this guy means business.

"He's really going to change things. He's going to bring in some guys, and we're all excited for what he's done and what he's about to do. He's the real deal."

They're not content with just getting in, someone told Hyde, a former Packer who has made the playoffs all five of his years in the NFL.

"Oh, no!" said Hyde. "Oh, no. Oh, no. We talked about it after the last game. We're glad to be in the playoffs, but there's bigger and better things ahead for this football team."

Maybe as soon as Sunday. The Jaguars were a nine-point underdog when they went to Buffalo for a wild-card game in December, 1996. They were a second-year expansion team that made the playoffs at 9-7 when Morten Andersen slipped and missed a field goal with four seconds left against them in the season finale.

The Jags stunned the Bills, 30-27, in what remains the only playoff game the Bills ever lost at what was then Rich Stadium. They knocked Jim Kelly out of the game and, as it turned out, into retirement.

I asked McDermott, whose team is a nine-point underdog, if he knew the history of that game. He played dumb at first, then smiled.

"My brother worked for Jacksonville then," he said, "so I'm aware."

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