Well, that was fun.
Not the outcome of the Buffalo Bills’ first playoff game in 17 years and 364 days, of course. Particularly Jacksonville’s 10-3 win ending with one Buffalo quarterback knocked out of the game by a pretty unnecessary bit of roughness and the other throwing an interception that maybe really wasn’t. But we will get to that later.
All the rest of it, though.
Locally, Buffalo’s unlikely return to the NFL’s postseason tournament unleashed a tidal wave of relief at no longer having to use the word “drought” except when it doesn’t rain for a while. Local generosity toward the foundation run by Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton made national news, while thank-you billboards sponsored by the man whose touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd on Baltimore on New Year’s Eve made it all possible dotted area roadways.
The Bills’ status as clear underdogs to the Jaguars didn’t seem to matter much to anyone. Particularly those who booked last-minute flights, or drove, to Florida. Those who stayed here threw house parties like it was the Super Bowl, or attended bashes at local establishments like the We Want Marangi Playoff Watch Party at the Lenox Grill. We will get to that later, as well.
The Invasion of Jacksonville by what seemed to be at least 10,000 Western New Yorkers, Buffalo expatriates and various other Bills fans was a raging success, even inspiring former Pittsburgh coach and current CBS blowhard Bill Cowher to smash through a folding table on national television.
With plastic tables at a premium in the region, Bills fans were forced to resort to the sturdier wooden variety at a rally Saturday at the appropriately named Wing-It, a bar near the hotel housing much of the occupying force, according to Tracy, WWM’s Jacksonville Correspondent.
(Note: Contrary to the barbaric reputation cultivated by some of the faithful, the attempted table smashers cleaned up their mess, and a crowd in the parking lot that sang the customized version of “Shout!” over and over dispersed peacefully when the authorities got involved, Tracy reported.)
The influx filled one lot at EverBank Field, spilling over into a second. No official statistics on how many square feet of Zubasz was worn, or how many tables were sacrificed, were available at press time.
On Maui, Adam—WWM’s Hawaii Bureau Chief—arrived at the Kahului Ale House moments before kickoff (8:05am local time with Samantha, a Bills diehard from Canandaigua, and Mike, a Bengals loyalist won over by the previous week’s events).
“He has newfound love for the city of Buffalo since he found out the people of our area have more dimensions than just the (Bills) Mafia,” said Adam, himself a devoted Steelers partisan whose geographic and family roots had him wearing blue, red and white.
Back in Buffalo, the Lenox Grill was packed. Now, it may well have been even without the publicity provided by The Public surrounding the WWM event. Since we live in an age where taking credit for things that you may have nothing to do with has become standard operating procedure, I’m going to do just that.
In any event, it was a great crowd, bubbling with the optimism that flowed through the whole week. Erik, Bill, Buck, John, Craig, and Lindsay joined in on the arduous work of reporting the Big Game.
Which was somewhat less entertaining than everything before and around it.
This should not have been a huge surprise to anyone, given that the key matchup pitted the NFL’s least-productive passing offense against Jacksonville’s league-best pass-defense unit.
That reality was evidently lost on Buffalo offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, who gave Tyrod Taylor the option to hand off or throw on what turned out to be the Bills’ most crucial offensive play.
Buffalo’s best drive of the day (the only one, really, and even that required the Jaguars to gift the visitors with three first downs via various penalties) put the ball at Jacksonville’s one-yard line, with four chances awaiting to advance the 36 inches required for 7-0 lead with less than three minutes until halftime.
Taylor could have handed the ball to LeSean McCoy, who would finish with 75 rushing yards, the most by any running back on either team, despite operating on a bum ankle. If that did not work, there were three more point-blank chances to do the same thing, or give it to Mike Tolbert, a supposed short-yardage specialist whom Dennison seems to prefer using as a receiver. Or provide defensive tackle Kyle Williams the opportunity to score a touchdown for the second straight week. Or, failing all that, let Taylor use his speed on a bootleg.
Instead, Taylor went with the fade route—possibly the most annoying play in football, because it rarely seems to work unless it involves Tom Brady lofting the ball and Rob Gronkowski going up to get it—to Kelvin Benjamin. Who happened to be tightly covered by Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville’s All-Pro cornerback.
Benjamin, hobbled by a knee injury, and Ramsey got tangled up as the ball soared overhead. Benjamin got flagged for offensive pass interference. And the Bills’ best shot at a touchdown wound up as a Steven Hauschka field goal. They would not get another.
“Why?” I asked the WWM staffers surrounding me. “Why would you throw that pass in that situation?”
Still haven’t gotten a good answer.
After an exchange of punts, Buffalo still could have taken a 3-0 lead into intermission. But the defense suffered two of its only lapses of the day. Bortles, who was even more futile than Taylor throwing the ball, instead ran it for 20 yards, then 12 more, to set up the tying field goal.
Bortles’ scrambling success somehow did not convince the Bills to put a spy on him after halftime, so he got loose twice more on the game’s only touchdown drive. He also turned a botched snap that should have led to great field position for Buffalo with less than five minutes remaining into a 26-yard gain that helped the Jaguars burn the clock instead.
The Bills did get two more chances to tie it. But Tyrod’s Last Stands ended first with a punt, then with Taylor being slammed head-first into the turf and then concussion protocol.
On came Nathan Fucking Peterman, who threw the game-ending interception on his second snap, because of course he did.
This is where we could argue that the interception should not have counted, because the replay showed Ramsey’s catch did not “survive the ground,” just like Jacksonville tight end Ben Koyack’s grab for the game’s only touchdown.
For a reversal of the interception to have mattered, you have to think Peterman might have gotten the Bills into the end zone with 26 seconds left. We should all know better than that by now.
At the Lenox, as well as in Jacksonville and on Maui, the ending brought disappointment, but not the sort of heartbreak and angst previous defeats—in the playoffs a very long time ago and in the regular-season ever since.
Instead, talk around the Lenox was more about next year than calls made and not made by the referees, or who failed in what way for Buffalo.
For an afternoon, and the week leading up to it, football as played by the Buffalo Bills was fun again. And looks like it may stay that way for a while.
Dave Staba is a recovering journalist who posts rather infrequently at wewantmarangi.blogspot.com and can be found somewhat more often on Twitter: @DavidStaba.