Growing up a Bills fan born in the early 90’s, I studied the heartbreak just as much as I studied the accolades. The heartbreak is what makes Buffalo the perennial underdog, what gives fans the “Buffalo vs. The World” mindset. Despite being able to recite the details of “Wide Right” and “Music City Miracle” as scars on the hearts of Buffalonians, I never had felt the full magnitude of them first hand. Even so, I took them and owned them, accepted the painful past of Buffalo sports. It’s what you do if you want to fully encapsulate yourself with Buffalo sports teams, it is the final acceptance into fanhood. Once my heart recovers from the dramatic ups and downs at the end of the game Sunday night, I will finally have a scar of my own. But this one I can fully own, I don’t have to rely on vicarious pain that permeates through the fan base from before I could remember the lyrics to the Shout Song. Everyone who watched on Sunday night, everyone who experienced Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane rebuild a left-for-dead franchise, everyone who survived the playoff drought and watched this team finally have the NFL’s best player can own it, too. We will always remember where we were exactly when “13 seconds” happened.
We might never know the real story of Sunday night. Sean McDermott, the consummate professional, will take all of the blame on his shoulders, never letting people outside of the walls of One Bills Drive be privy to what was discussed between the coaches and players in the sixty seconds between Allen hitting Davis for the biggest touchdown the franchise has ever seen and Tyler Bass knocking the ball through the endzone. On the surface, it looks an awful lot like the Bills coaching staff snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, a victory that would have been remembered as the greatest win in franchise history. Not one but two go-ahead drives by Josh Allen in the final two minutes of the game, converting on multiple 4th downs along the way, including a touchdown strike on 4th and 13 coming out of the two minute warning. The Bills were so dialed in that they weren’t even phased that Stefon Diggs took it upon himself to tackle a rogue fan that ran onto the field, something that I was sure was going to disrupt the Bills’ concentration seconds before the 4th down touchdown pass. Even after the Bills defense surrendered a 64-yard Tyrek Hill score, there was a feeling of security knowing Allen and the Bills were getting the ball back with one minute left and had another shot to win it. The Bills were playing in the loudest stadium in the NFL, the toughest venue for visiting teams, and it didn’t matter. Allen did whatever he wanted with ease and found Davis for a record setting 4th touchdown of the night and the Bills were 13 seconds away from hosting the AFC Championship game at home.
If the call from the coaches was to kick the ball through the back of the endzone, I can understand why. Who wants to kick the ball to Tyreek Hill? There is no guarantee Bass is able to get the ball exactly in the sweet spot that would have run some clock. What if it is fielded at the 35? The Chiefs would have been 10 yards closer than they were to start. The problem for me lies within the defensive approach during the two plays that will haunt the fanbase forever. With the Chiefs needing 35 yards to attempt a kick, the call came from the sideline to give the potent Chiefs offense 15 yards of separation and guard the sideline despite the Chiefs not needing to work the sideline at all. The lack of situational awareness from the Bills coaching staff is jarring, and it cost them mightily. I have always hated the old adage about prevent defense: “The only thing prevent defense does is prevent you from winning.” Well, I guess it is true. Especially when it is used at entirely the wrong time. On Tuesday McDermott wouldn’t explain the miscues on Sunday beyond saying the team didn’t execute. Many are implying that not executing means the blame for the kickoff and two defensive snaps is on the players. It also could mean the coaches failed to execute their jobs as well. We will truly never know.
With the way that Josh Allen had played through two playoff games it would not be hyperbolic to say if the Bills won the overtime coin toss they would have go on to win the Super Bowl in three weeks. The Bills would have beaten the Bengals at home, and although traveling to Los Angeles to play against the Rams would have been tough, I think the Bills would have pulled that off too. After all, Josh Allen was doing things no man had ever done in the playoffs prior and as we all saw, literally could not be stopped. As the Bills wrap up their 2021 season, they will most likely say goodbye to their offensive coordinator who is the favorite to get hired by the New York Giants in the coming days. They will say goodbye to a roster that remained almost entirely intact from the 2020 season. The core of this team is still there, but changes will have to be made on the field and on the sidelines, as well. Change can sometimes be good, but there is no guarantee that the Bills can replicate their success of the past two seasons with a handful of new players and new coaches. NFL seasons are long and unpredictable; injuries happen and every team doesn’t peak at the right time like the Bills had been doing this year. This was their time, the Bills were committed to “running it back” and taking another stab at the elusive title. They were 13 seconds away from their plan one year in the making paying off.
In season’s past, the next September always erases the pain from the previous year. I know I was disappointed when the Bills blew a 16-point lead to the Texans in the playoffs two years ago, but their historic 2020 season helped ease that pain. One year ago when the Bills lost to the Chiefs, it eased the pain knowing they were building something special and would be back this year. But this time is different. Time will soften this pain, but it will never completely disappear. We could experience a time jump and wake up tomorrow in September with new games to play and a new goal to chase after, and yet this sting will not be gone.
Josh Allen and the Bills could go on to win multiple Super Bowls together when all is said and done many years from now, but my heart will always break a little thinking of the 2021 season. No matter how many Lombardi trophies the Bills win, there will always be an empty spot in the trophy case from this year. For a city starved for a championship, maybe it will be greedy to pine for this one after the Bills finally do get to the promised land. The thing is, Super Bowl championships outlive a specific regime; they are linked to the franchise forever. Coaches come and go, players come and go, owners come and go, but the franchise, their fans, and any accumulated heartbreak and accolades remain. The Buffalo Bills will always remain. And for eternity, so will that empty spot in the trophy case. This was, and will always be, the one that got away.