At the end of a magical week, you figured this might be a day when the 12th Man showed up in force, when the collective fury of a Buffalo Bills crowd lifted the team to a defining win.
The players didn’t realize it would begin a day early.
“I mean, they were rowdy on Saturday morning,” defensive end Jerry Hughes said after the Bills’ 29-10 victory over Miami. “We kind of picked up on that energy during our walkthrough.”
What? The fans were rowdy when?
“On Saturday morning,” Hughes said with a laugh. “We were driving down Southwestern to our practice facility and we saw them back up two or three miles in their RVs. So when you see that, you know the energy is real. You know it’s going to be an electric place.”
Oh, it was electric, all right. Sunday’s game against the Dolphins was the first regular-season home game since Ralph Wilson’s death. They honoured Wilson beforehand and gave his widow, Mary, a Wall of Fame ring. Jim Kelly, cancer-free and full of his old vigour, addressed the crowd in the ceremony.
But for fans, the knowledge that the Pegulas had won the bid and would keep their treasured NFL franchise in Buffalo took things to a new level. It was an emotional cyclone, one that began gathering steam when the happy news arrived last Tuesday and kept building right up until kickoff and beyond.
As the players discovered Saturday morning, some fans couldn’t wait to get there. That point was hammered home for veteran centre Eric Wood when he drove to The Ralph at 9 a.m. on Sunday.
“That’s the most traffic I ever fought,” Wood said. “I apologized to all the people I cut off in traffic coming off the 219. I skipped about 100 cars and asked somebody to let me in. They wouldn’t. Scott Chandler was riding in the back of my truck. I said, ‘He’ll give you an autograph if you let me in!’ ”
Russ Brandon, the president and CEO, has been with the Bills for 18 years. He has seen some unforgettable games at The Ralph. But after the events of the past year, and the past week, this felt different somehow.
“I was trying to explain to some of the young staff,” Brandon said. “Just being down there for pre-game, even before the gates opened. It was a different vibe, a different feel.”
Brandon hesitated when he spoke. His eyes were red, as if he had done his share of crying during the long day. It has been a gruelling, emotional six months for the Bills’ CEO, who had to deal with Wilson’s death, the renovation of the stadium, the establishment of a trust and the sale of the team over that relatively compacted period of time.
“I was a wreck today,” Brandon said. “A wreck. Yeah, it’s been an emotional week.”
So it was indeed moving to see the Bills feed off their home crowd and play a football game that rose up to the level of the celebration, a performance that honoured Wilson’s memory and the legacy of the Super Bowl teams of the 1990s.
Brandon is often brought to tears when he speaks of Wilson, who gave him control of the team on New Year’s Day, 2013. He cried on draft night, when he talked about how much Wilson would have loved the wheeling and dealing that brought rookie Sammy Watkins to town. He was thinking of him again when they crushed the Dolphins.
“I envisioned him walking in and doing his customary little fist pump,” Brandon said, gesturing with his right arm at the front of the Bills’ dressing room. “He just loved this so much, and he would have been very proud of the tribute today.”
Yes, Wilson would have been in his glory after this one. He would have gone from player to player, congratulating them and joking with them. There would have been countless heroes to embrace, from C.J. Spiller to Watkins to all the members of a defence that tore the Dolphins to shreds.
He would have wanted to salute the Buffalo fans, too. They were a big factor, as they were so often in the glory days. Almost everyone in the lower bowl stood for the entire game, as if physically trying to transfer their energy onto the playing field.
That’s the beauty of the 12th Man, which is mainly a defensive phenomenon. The fans literally affect the outcome by raising such a din that it’s difficult for the opposing offense to function. I remember being in the stands during the famous comeback game and feeling like part of a dynamic, living force.
Poor Ryan Tannehill wasn’t up to the challenge. Miami’s young quarterback was unsettled in the first half, when he was sacked three times and threw for 38 yards. He piled up a lot of garbage stats after halftime, but the stat that matters is this: He’s now 1-4 against the Bills. He hasn’t played well in any of them.
The Bills led at halftime, 9-0. At that point, they had outscored the Dolphins 28-0 over the last six quarters here and piled up 10 sacks. For the game, they didn’t allow a play longer than 18 yards, or a run longer than seven.
Quarterback EJ Manuel was good enough. He didn’t throw an interception and made a lot of sure, safe throws that went for good gains. Manuel had four completions of 20-plus yards, giving him eight in two games. Watkins had eight catches, two for 20-plus, and a career-high 117 yards.
You couldn’t have asked for a better end to an amazing week. The community was at an emotional peak because the team isn’t leaving town. They honoured the former owner in a pre-game celebration. And the team rose to the occasion. It’s enough to make you believe this year’s 2-0 start might actually be different.
“We felt that in the off-season,” said running back Fred Jackson. “We felt there was something different about this team. It’s early, though. We can’t get ahead of ourselves. We got to keep coming to work.”
Whatever happens, people will remember this game, and this week, for years to come. Mary Wilson relished the moment, as her husband did so many times before. After the game, she came briefly to the locker room, where she stood near the entrance, congratulating Manuel on the win.
She didn’t do the fist pump. But at the end of an electric day, Mary was positively glowing.