Game #3: The Bills Come to Town

Buffalo Bills’ Head Coach Lou Saban with QB Jack Kemp during the AFL Championship run of 1965. Despite back-to-back championships, Saban would resign after the season to coach the University of Maryland

A popular advertisement at one time said, “Life comes at you fast.” Football comes much faster than that. After only two weeks the Burgundy and Gold have won nearly a full third of the wins predicted for them by a myriad of experts. So far these wins have come against an admittedly poor team, and one just coming to grips with its inadequacies. If Josh Harris and his ownership group was the Rescue Squad for the long-suffering, and largely invisible fanbase then Sean Payton was N. Richard Nash’s “Rainmaker” for the parched Colorado football plains. Sean was going to fix everything including the formerly Hall-of-Fame-bound turned pedestrian Quarterback Russell Wilson. He went so far as to brag on SXM radio during training camp tours that he had done more offensive “Installs” in a shorter time than he thought possible. After losing last week, he was forced to admit his team couldn’t even execute personnel groupings in a timely manner. Wilson was chronically late getting the team out of the huddle. High School teams get these elements of the game correct in the vast majority of cases. At the professional level such failures are inexcusable. The punditry expects things in Denver to solidify. It won’t matter to the Washington squad. They hit Denver at a good time leaving with the win.

The Buffalo team on the schedule today has none of Denver’s basic execution issues. It’s a very good team with deserved Championship ambitions. A win today for the Washington Commanders would represent a significant upset.

For the second week in a row the Washington squad faces an original franchise from the American Football League. In that AFL four-team East Division were Boston, Buffalo, Houston, and the New York Titans. Six of the original teams did not have Major League Baseball franchises at the time. Only Buffalo is without one today. The city itself actually lost population over the last half of the 20th century. Founded on the commerce associated with the Erie Canal and subsequent railroad industries the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway inflicted a heavy blow. The 2020 Census showed the first uptick in population for 70 years. It’s the 51st media market behind places like Louisville and Norfolk. The AFL and subsequent merger put a minor league city on a national stage. Their dedicated fanbase has kept them there. Those fanbase roots go deep to newer generations of Bills’ fans that grew up elsewhere — but have a loyalty for the team of their parents and grandparents.

Buffalo enjoyed great success in the old AFL. They went to three straight AFL Championship games winning two in a row before dropping the third. The post-merger period was less kind for a number of years. Three playoff appearances in sixteen post-merger years was accentuated by only one playoff win. Then Marv Levy was hired as interim Head Coach in 1986. By the time he walked away 11 years later the team had made 8 post-season appearances, won 10 playoff games, and appeared in 4 straight Super Bowls. There was only one rub: The Bills lost all four of those Super Bowls.

Jack Kemp hands off to Cookie Gilchrist during the championship run of 1964.

When it came to the Big Game, Levy was snakebit. The first appearance in 1990 pitted them against a Giants team that was not their equal on paper. A last second would-be game-winning kick 47 sailed wide leaving them with a one-point loss. Scott Norwood will always be remembered for that miss. Coincidentally, Norwood is a local to D.C. who was born in, and still reportedly lives in the area. The following year came Joe Gibbs‘ best Washington team. Gibbs went to his fourth Super Bowl with his third QB. Here’s a quick perspective on that team: The Defense produced 50 sacks while the Offense allowed only 9…all season. The current Washington team has allowed 10 sacks already in only 2 games. Levy’s luck didn’t get any better as the juggernaut Dallas team under Jimmy Johnson arrived with Troy Aikman and a host of future Hall of Famers. Levy’s first Super Bowl was close. The other three were not.

The Bills went to the playoffs the first two years after Levy departed. They would not return for 18 years until current coach Sean McDermott arrived. He’s lead them to the playoffs five of his six seasons. This group under McDermott represents the next iteration of The Great Hope. Surely, this crew will provide deliverance. Insufferable playoff losses in this epoch have only served to reinforce a portfolio of dashed dreams.

All of this history serves to paint the backdrop of Buffalo’s most important asset; its fanbase. The small city element has created an “Us against the world” mindset. Faithful to a fault this fanbase has stuck by a franchise that was sorely tempted to move once the original owner Ralph Wilson died in 2014. The new owner never took the bait, however. Faithful, yes. Forgetful, never. The futility of those four near-miss championships has weaved a large button on their individual and collective chests. You can give it a light-hearted gentle push if so tempted. You will shortly wish you were somewhere else. The old AFL Titans became the Jets, appearing in one Super Bowl 54 years ago. They have not returned. Jets fans have a self-deprecating sense of humor about their paucity of Championship Football. Bills fans, as a rule, have none of that. They are a serious lot.

Fed Ex Field had been a home-away-from-home for visiting teams for years while rarely selling out. Opening Day could have been renamed “Liberation Day” as the stench of the former owner was loosed to the wind. This game is also sold out. But, the Buffalo contingent will be there in force and will be vocal. The fanbase travels well, and many live in the D.C. area. The “Fans of Buffalo” group and the hard core “Bills Mafia” take prominent space at nearly every away game, including the overseas trip. The dynamic in the stadium will be a point of interest.

The largest question for this game is the Buffalo team itself. During the preseason they were throttled and physically pounded by the Steelers. McDermott must have read his squad the “Riot Act” in biblical tongues. They simply thrashed the hapless Bears the following week. On the Opening Night of Monday Night Football they watched Aaron Rodgers leave the stage after only four plays. Four was the operative number as that’s how many turnovers their star quarterback Josh Allen produced on their way to a dizzying loss. The Head Coach reproduced his earlier efforts. Poor Las Vegas was a punching bag for the Bills’ frustrations last week. Perhaps Washington catches them sleepwalking yet again. On the other hand…

The key is Allen. This is a large human for a quarterback. He is 6’5″ at 237 lbs. His forte is the long ball to his X receiver Stefon Diggs who is a D.C. local and starred at the University of Maryland. Allen likes to use his size to run. Unfortunately, for him, he also likes to take on Linebackers and Safeties. Some in the Buffalo fanbase want him to run more. Hopefully, he doesn’t listen. Large QBs who take on defensive players tend to not last. Ask Andrew Luck or Cam Newton; both equally large men now physically beaten up and out of the League prematurely. Allen’s biggest nemesis is pressure. Washington’s biggest asset is the Defensive Line. It’s one of the few in the League that can bring pressure without committing additional players to the rush. The D-Line is where the home team has a chance to tilt the scales in their favor. Montez Sweat and Chase Young need to step up and make big plays. If Daron Payne is truly healthy that would help the effort. The team reported that he was a full participant at Friday’s practice.

This game comes down to turnovers. Buffalo can afford one or two. Washington can’t afford any. Young Mr. Sam Howell has had a strip sack in each of the previous two games. Now would be an excellent time to break that habit.

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