It was a fun exercise during the bye week, looking ahead at Buffalo’s schedule and all the cupcakes.
The Bills had won four of their first five games and still had easy home matchups against the Washington Redskins, Denver Broncos and New York Jets on tap. They still had the winless Miami Dolphins twice, including in the first of three consecutive home games coming out of the break. That’s nine wins right there.
And road games against the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t as daunting as they once seemed.
The Bills were going to win 10 games this season. Maybe 11.
They were heading for the playoffs, for sure.
And then that faith was put to the test Sunday.
“Our fans, they deserve better,” quarterback Josh Allen said. “They deserve us to come out and play how we’re supposed to play.”
The Bills settled for field goals on their first three drives, were booed off the field at halftime and were trailing a historically bad Miami team 14-9 entering the fourth quarter, before rallying for a 31-21 victory at New Era Field that was far more harrowing than the final score indicates.
Allen was being outplayed by Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Buffalo’s supposedly elite defense was being gashed. And even after rallying to retake the lead – the Bills scored 15 points off cornerback Tre’Davious White’s goal line interception and forced fumble, recovered by defensive end Jerry Hughes – the Dolphins closed to within 24-21 with less than two minutes to play.
Safety Micah Hyde sealed the victory by returning the Dolphins’ attempted onside kick 45 yards for a touchdown, and the Bills improved to 5-1 for the first time since 2008, just as everyone figured.
“I think good teams win ugly games,” Hyde said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be on some good teams in this league, and there’s been some ugly wins where we somehow at the end of the game just make a play or two to win the game. Good teams win ugly games and that’s what you saw today.”
The Bills, by definition, are a good team.
They own the second-best record in the AFC, behind only the undefeated New England Patriots.
The Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts all have two losses. The Houston Texans are 4-3. There isn't another team in the conference with a winning record.
But how good are these Bills?
This is a team that not only trailed the tanking Dolphins, at home, entering the fourth quarter, but trailed the still-winless Cincinnati Bengals at home with five minutes to play.
They had to rally from a 16-point deficit to beat the Jets by a point in the season opener.
They let a terrible New York Giants team hang around into the fourth quarter.
They escaped with a 14-7 victory over the Titans after Tennessee’s now former kicker missed three field goals and had another blocked.
And yet they’ve only lost once, to the Patriots, 16-10, and probably should have won that game, given how well the defense played, and would have, despite Allen throwing three interceptions, were it not for a blocked punt returned for a touchdown.
“It just shows what type of guys we’ve got in the locker room, how resilient we are,” White said in the Bills’ celebratory locker room Sunday. “When our backs are against the wall, we continue to fight. We don’t point fingers. We just lift each other up, so that’s the biggest thing we’re going to take away from this game, is just how resilient we are and how we respond to adversity.”
It was late in the third quarter, and the Dolphins were driving for a two-score lead, with first-and-goal after converting a fake field goal, when defensive tackle Jordan Phillips blasted through the line to tackle Fitzpatrick.
On the next play, White snared an interception at the 2. That led to a 98-yard touchdown drive, which Allen capped by finding wide receiver John Brown for a 20-yard score. He then ran in the two-point conversion for a 17-14 lead and celebrated by rifling a perfect spiral high into the 200 level seats.
Minutes later, White forced a fumble deep in Miami territory, Hughes hopped on the loose ball and the offense converted again, with wide receiver Cole Beasley catching his first touchdown pass of the season, putting the Bills in control, 24-14, with 6 1/2 minutes to play.
Allen, it should be noted, did not turn the ball over for just the second time this season – a welcome development.
But the Dolphins still made things interesting late, marching 60 yards in 11 plays, with Fitzpatrick scrambling for a touchdown to trim the Bills’ lead to 24-21 with 1:45 remaining.
This was an important lesson for the Bills and their fans:
“You can’t overlook anybody,” safety Jordan Poyer said. “It was a hungry team that came in here and fought really hard today. This is the NFL, no matter what anybody’s record is – 0-5, 5-0, it doesn’t matter – each team is going to come ready to play each week.”
Defensive end Trent Murphy echoed the sentiment.
“I think the record’s wiped clean at the beginning of every game,” Murphy said, “and that’s why we talk about going 1-0, because that’s what it is – one play at a time, one quarter at a time, one game at a time. You look too far ahead, you look behind you where you’ve come from, that’s just a distraction.”
The Bills were favored to win this game by 17 points.
They were expected to demonstrably prove they were the better team, one headed for the playoffs, their opponent headed for the top of the draft.
But the Dolphins finished with more yards, more first downs, were far better on third-down conversions and scored on three of four trips into the red zone. They also committed fewer penalties than the Bills.
And yet Buffalo found a way to escape with the victory, once again.
“It took a while into the second half for us to make some plays,” Hyde said, “but fortunately enough we did, and I’ll take an ugly win over an ugly loss.”
Good teams win ugly games.
And if these Bills have proved anything, they sure know how to win ugly.