Sports clichés have been around since the first ball was kicked or picked up and run with. And two facts remain about virtually all of them; they are right and they are wrong.
One of the most often stated in sports fandom is, “There are no moral victories.”
This is wholly true in numerous ways, and patently false in others.
Standing up to the league’s top team versus getting curb-stomped matters. A few plays in Sunday's Bills loss that propelled the game in a different direction that can be worked on or fixed are a world away from back-to-the-drawing board blowouts. Confidence is still sky high if you measure up and compete against the best of the best.
But moral victories are soon forgotten. Wins are forever.
And yet, the Baltimore game also simultaneously proved that the Bills can play with anyone and beat anyone in 2019, and will likely still be playing the first week of 2020. The defense made MVP favorite Lamar Jackson into the most visible or versatile but not MVP.
The Bills brought their A game on defense, B game in special teams and coaching, and C game on offense, and still stacked up.
That is a cold, hard truth; and yet H.L. Menken shrewdly observed, “In human history, a moral victory is always a disaster, for it debauches and degrades both the victor and the vanquished.”
But it is also a cool hard truth that the Bills fought toe-to-toe like “Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots" against the finest, most well-rounded, confident and hottest team coming in.
The defense matched up physically with the brutish Ravens; what Micah Hyde agreed was, “big-boy football," and something unclear even in the drought-breaking playoff season in 2017.
This season, and this team, is different.
Poor tackling of earlier weeks disappeared in this one. Contain was solid if not superb. They knocked Baltimore’s earthquake running game down to a tremor, a touch more than half its average, and Jackson to just 40. Communication excelled all afternoon.
And yet the one time it didn’t, the Ravens were gift-wrapped a wide-open 61-yard score that was the difference in a tight game.
They did give up that lone long bomb. It happened.
In fact, the defense gave up 24 of those pesky, hard-to-come-by points, which were not few enough to win. Jackson threw three touchdowns, which is good if not great by any standard. And yet Buffalo successfully corralled him all afternoon.
Hardcore fans will tell you, quite firmly and often loudly, that acquitting oneself well is not winning.
But the game came down to the last play. The Bills were a yard away from a tie if not eventual triumph.
Josh Allen was too amped early, and his passes often sailed too high, missing three deep balls to open receivers that were momentum, if not game-changers. He held the rock too long, bailed too early, and couldn’t elude pass rushers he’d dodged all season. It was a subpar effort and a turkey following his best day ever on Thanksgiving.
Stuart Wilde said, “To win a moral victory at the expense of your sanity is dumb.”
Face it, Sunday was a loss. That is a reality.
And yet it is simultaneously a reality that the offensive line was pecked apart by the relentless Ravens’ blitzing. Supposed pass-catchers dropped five or six very catchable balls, by Devin Singletary, Dawson Knox, Cole Beasley and (arguably) Isaiah McKenzie, which brings Allen’s atrocious 43.5% completion to a respectable and maybe game-winning 58.9%.
But the stats say that he was 17 of 39. That is unacceptable.
Sure, Dawson Knox drops two in his hands but he also makes a miraculous one-hand gem on a late TD drive. He also seemed to decide against blocking Ravens stud edge rusher Matt Judon that caused a blind side wallop and Josh Allen strip-sack, which led to Baltimore’s first touchdown.
Sure, the referees blew a clear, critical interference call against Robert Foster in the third but gave the Bills at least a questionable interference call late in the fourth. There were shaky flags on both sides and, like the weather, both teams were hurt and neither benefited.
So the very winnable game is now officially a loss, and kept our upstarts from clinching a playoff berth.
The Steelers game on Sunday now becomes the third consecutive “biggest game of the season” and playoff atmosphere. The Bills are legit top-of-the-conference contenders with a win, and yet possibly in severe danger with a loss.
And why there are no moral victories.
Unless you want to count a reliable Stephen Hauschka returning, at least for a week; Singletary once again proving he is a rising star at running back and is second in the league in yards per attempt; Shaq Lawson playing the edge with an edge; and an honorable mention for Tre’Davious White’s hilarious reading of the windblown Ravens formation sheet he found on the field.
Like rooting for the Patriots, is there such a thing as an immoral victory?
It’s never easy being a fan; too many contradictory ways of looking at things. There is not only snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, it’s sometimes impossible deciphering victory from defeat.
But one thing is clear. There are no moral victories this week. The Bills need a definitive win Sunday night.
Pete Rosen is a screenwriter in Los Angeles, lifetime Buffalo fan, and may be found blathering daily at twobillsdrive.com.