Leaving the Past Behind

The Buffalo Bills stampeded the New England Patriots Saturday night, 47-17, but it was so much more than a lopsided playoff game.

It’s well known:  Bills fans love their team.  They aren’t the only fans who love their team, and they aren’t the only pro football fans who have suffered through the seemingly endless futility of their team.   Still, the story of the pain of Bills fans is legendary:  Wide right and the four straight Super Bowl losses, the drought, the endless quarterback frustrations, the Buffalo jokes.   Every year, Bills fans hoped for more, hoped for success, hoped for respect, and it didn’t happen.  And for the past twenty years, all along the way, there were the New England Patriots, crushing those hopes mercilessly.

Then came Kim and Terry Pegula, and then Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane, and things began to change.   The fans felt it, not the aimless, empty hopes of the past, but something different: real hope.  Then Josh Allen arrived, and there was more than hope; there was genuine excitement.  It was all so new, so different, the fans didn’t know how to react to the beginnings of real success.  They were confused, full of conflicting emotions.

Ending the drought with a win and Andy Dalton’s heroics, and Kyle Williams and his boys, didn’t release the dammed up emotions.  Beating the Patriots twice and winning the division didn’t do it, either.  Getting to the AFC championship game didn’t do it.  As the wildcard game approached, fans still wondered if their team was for real, still dreaded Belichick’s legendary game planning.

Saturday night, the dam broke.  On the field, the Bills delivered one of the NFL’s most spectacular, dominant playoff performances since, well, since the Bills beat the Raiders 51-3 in the AFC Championship game in 1991.  Seven possessions, seven touchdowns, no field goal attempts, no punts, no turnovers.  Five touchdown passes, 308 yards passing, 66 yards rushing from Josh Allen.

It was an all-time great offensive explosion.  The first TD to Knox was great (even for thousands of fans watching on television, waiting to get through security and into the stadium), Hyde’s interception was great, the next drive and the second Knox TD was great, play after play after play was great.   No one had seen anything like it – football perfection, and it was wearing the uniform of the Buffalo Bills.  By the second half, the fans were delirious.  As the plays continued, the Singletary runs, the exquisite deep throw by Allen and catch by Diggs, the Sanders TD reception, the Hyde punt return, the Davis TD reception, we were laughing, we were hugging, we were high-fiving.  Fans were dancing.   We sang every word of the Shout song, every time.

But it was so much more than astoundingly great football.  It was the moment that Bills fans finally knew in their hearts that the decades of frustration were over.  No more doubts about Josh Allen, no more doubts about the defense, no more deep-seated fear of the Belichick magic.

And so, for the fans in Highmark Stadium, the game became a celebration to bury the past.  We sang good-bye to the Patriots, and it was more than a derisive chant to mock a defeated opponent.  It was the end of the horrible curse that had been Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, and it was the end of the losing.  We sang as loud as we could, letting out all of the frustration of two decades of defeat and domination.

It had stopped being about football.  It was something more.  It was pure joy.  It was something we never expected, something we couldn’t have imagined.  When the game ended, when the singing and dancing and cheering and laughing were done, many fans stood in the stadium, not wanting the moment to end.  It was difficult to understand what had happened; maybe if we stayed another minute or two, we would understand.  But whatever amazing thing it was, it was over.

After the game, Sean McDermott said as the clock ran down, he turned and looked into the stands.   He saw the joy.  He said he was happy for the fans.

And, interestingly, he essentially said that it was moment for the fans, not for the team.   Yes, the fans had decades of disappointment, but these coaches and players didn’t.  The fans suffered through twice-a-year spankings by the Patriots, but these coaches and players didn’t.  For them, it was just a game they had to win against a team they knew they could beat, it was just a step in a process that continues.

There are games still to be played, championships to be won, Lombardi trophies to be raised high into the air.  Maybe this year, maybe some other year.  But for now, finally, it no longer seems impossible.

In one glorious night, all of the ugly past was left behind.  Not forgotten, but it no longer matters.   We’re done with the past; now is the time.


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