Few things whip American sports fans into a frenzy more than a downtrodden franchise finally about to get off the schneid.
Baseball especially in recent decades has gloried in this, first with the Boston Red Sox ending their eighty-six-year championship drought in 2004 and then the Chicago Cubs breaking the Curse of the Billy Goat that had lasted over a century.
That the NFL has its own version of this flies in the face of the league’s gushing about its parity of talent. If several teams have gone the entire modern era without sniffing the promised land, surely that parity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Nevertheless, there are a small handful of teams that NFL fans recognize as especially tortured, and few would deny the Buffalo Bills their place as a top woebegone franchise.
The Bills won two AFL championships prior to the Super Bowl era. They had O.J. Simpson on their roster in 1973 when he became the first back to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season, doing so in just fourteen games. But for many, the franchise’s history begins and ends with the Bills losing four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s. It probably also didn’t help that Buffalo’s first Super Bowl loss was by the narrowest of margins, a missed game-winning field goal at the end of regulation play, while the subsequent three were dreadful blowouts.
Buffalo closed out the nightmare ’90s in appropriately grueling fashion. By 1999, the core of those Super Bowl entrant Bills teams had already moved on, though the franchise was still competitive. In the Wild Card round that postseason, Buffalo was tortured by fate again, being on the wrong side of the controversial Music City Miracle play that saw the Tennessee Titans pull the rug out from under the Bills in the final seconds of what was looking like a playoff victory.
It would be another eighteen years until the Bills made the playoffs again. Along the way, there were reminders that, as low as Buffalo had sunk, there would always be a new bottom to hit — such as a Monday night meltdown against Dallas in 2007, where the Bills gave up nine points in the final twenty seconds despite intercepting Tony Romo five times. Then there was 2011, when Ryan Fitzpatrick played himself into a $59 million contract, guiding the Bills to a 5-2 start only for the team to lose seven straight and miss the postseason.
The Buffalo Bills have spent the last several years positioning themselves to be the latest lovable losers to triumph, inching closer and closer to glory. Since 2018, they have been led by quarterback Josh Allen, initially dismissed coming out of the draft over accuracy concerns. Allen is now widely viewed as one of the best QBs in the NFL, with a physical and free-wheeling style of play that has led some to call his game the next evolution in the style popularized by Ben Roethlisberger.
In the years since the ’90s, Bills fans have taken to calling themselves the Bills Mafia. Buffalo games are like Woodstock 99, with fans throwing dildos onto the field and executing flying elbow drops onto folding tables in the parking lot.
The fervor backing the Bills even outside Buffalo has been building in twain with their momentum toward a championship. Last season, Buffalo lost an instant classic of a playoff game in the divisional round to the Kansas City Chiefs. The game was back-and-forth, dazzling displays of offensive firepower from two of the league’s best passers. Fans, however, felt cheated when the Chiefs were able to put away the game in overtime without the Bills having possessed the ball. So the NFL changed the rules, ensuring both offenses get a chance. Knowing how mindful the NFL is of public opinion, it’s reasonable to conclude they wouldn’t have taken such a drastic step had a less beloved team been felled.
Forget the Cowboys. Forget the Steelers. Forget the Packers. Forget the Patriots. For the last year or so, the Buffalo Bills have been America’s Team. In the DC area where I live, I’ve observed more Bills gear in my day-to-day life than Commanders stuff. Such was the force of collective will that when Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest and nearly died following a hit in the later-cancelled game against the Bengals on January 2, it was easy for the NFL to shift the focus away from the inherent danger of the sport to this being yet another dramatic element of a title run.
When the Bills opened their following game after Hamlin’s injury with a ninety-six-yard opening kickoff return for a touchdown by Nyheim Hines, some joked online that NFL script writers were laying it on a bit thick. A Bills championship run was not just widely desired, it was an inevitability.
If it was all seeming too good to be true, the Bengals, the Bills themselves, and harsh reality intervened on Sunday. The Bills, even though they were at home in the snow in their element, did not benefit from some bizarre twist of fate; they were thoroughly dominated. For a while early in the season, critics had been dogging the Bills for their poor record in one-score games. The knock on them, in addition to being unable to run the ball, was that they were frontrunners — able to blow past outmatched opponents yet unable to grind out the tight ones.
That reared its head again on Sunday. Cincinnati made the Bills look like a finesse team caught in brutal January football. The Bengals have plenty of tales of woe of their own. But if you’re looking for America’s team, it might not be found in Buffalo come next season.