You get into habits when you go to a lot of Bills games. How you dress and eat, where you park, where you sit, how you interact with fans, where you get information during the game, information like down and distance, stats, roster numbers. The games are different, but there’s a routine.
Saturday night the Bills beat the Ravens 17-3 to advance to the AFC Championship game. For me, all the habits were out the window. I hadn’t been to a football game for a year, and I had fallen out of my routine. Everything about the experience was unique.
There was COVID-19, of course. We had to be in Buffalo by Thursday morning to swabbed. Lot 4, 10 a.m., drive through. The streets were empty. There were just a few dozen people, directing traffic through the empty lot to stations where nurses did their thing and we were gone.
Then there were two days in a hotel room, waiting for Doordash to arrive from one restaurant or another, and a lot of TV watching.
Everything about game day was different. First, we had to wait all day, because it wasn’t the usual 1 p.m. start, or even 4. I checked my phone about four times. Is it charged? Are the tickets on it? Are my COVID test results on it?
What should we wear? We bought club seats for the game, in part because they’re covered and there’s radiant heat. Do we need all those layers? I don’t know.
We never parked in Lot 6 before.
Some things don’t change. The fans in the lots were fired up. They hadn’t forgotten what it’s like to be at a Bills game. They were happy, loud, energized.
No lines to get into the stadium. Even the stadium name is different, Bills Stadium. Everything about it said that this is a new era.
The temperature was in the mid-30s, the wind was blowing. The flags atop the stadium were flapping and waving and sometimes standing straight out, whipped mercilessly by the wind. Sometimes during the game, the officials’ pant legs flapped violently. The streamers at the top of the goal posts were blown in all different directions. Then there was the characteristic sign of a bad wind day – the goal posts were moving, swaying here and there.
Those radiant heaters in the club seats are nice. I took off my parka. By late in the first quarter, as the wind blew through the club seat area, I put it back on. Radiant heat is no match for Buffalo wind chill. It was cold, damn it.
The fans were ready. There was a lot of excitement. We weren’t side by side, but we knew we were in a crowd. They were excited. Some of us had learned during the week that the empty benches and the empty seat backs beside you make a lot of noise if you pound on them hard enough. If you struck the seat back with force on a scale of 1 to 5, it made noise on a scale of 1 to 20 – if you really whacked it, it was like pounding a drum. On some plays, with thousands pounding, it sounded like a nonstop thunderstorm.
And then there was the game. One of the strangest games I’ve seen. Nothing happened. It was all anxiety. Can we stop Jackson? Can we stop Jackson? Come on, stop Jackson. The Bills stopped Jackson, but it always felt like he was about to explode. The great Justin Tucker, Mr. Automatic, couldn’t make a field goal.
Can the Bills move the ball? Can they score? No, they can’t run the ball at all. In fact, they didn’t even try. Can Allen throw it? Well, not like Josh Allen, he can’t. If there is skill involved in throwing in the Buffalo wind, and I believe there is, it’s a skill Josh hasn’t developed yet. Still, when he was throwing in rhythm and relatively short, there were completions to be had. Stefon Diggs catches everything he touches. Gabriel Davis, for some reason, was hobbled, and he couldn’t catch the tough balls – was it the wind? The cold? His injury? Four targets, no catches.
This was two tough, tough teams screaming “NO!!! YOU CANNOT!!!” all night long. There were no gimmicks, no trick plays, no jet sweeps. Both teams knew that this was a head-to-head slugfest where gimmicks could be disastrous.
There had been 11 possessions by the two teams in the first half, back and forth, trading punts, missed field goals. Nothing much happened. Then, in the third quarter the Bills had the ball only once, and the Ravens had the ball only once.
The Bills put together a solid drive to open the third quarter and got to the red zone. Fortunately, Brian Daboll had a play for the goal line. On second and goal from the three, Allen threw quickly to Diggs on the left sideline, and Diggs found his way into the end zone through two blockers and what looked like four tacklers. 10-3, Bills.
The Ravens responded with a drive of their own. Slow, methodical, relentless. They were on their way to tie the game again, to continue the grim battle of wills.
And then it was over. One play, and it was over. On third and goal from the nine, Lamar Jackson stood in the pocket and threw into the heart of the Bills’ zone defense, looking for his tight end.
There is one immutable truth about quarterbacking in the NFL, and that is if you want to be great, you have to be a great passer from the pocket. You can be the best running quarterback, you can scramble beautifully, but if you want to be great, you have to be able to run the game from the pocket. Lamar Jackson’s coaches have designed an offense to take advantage of his extraordinary ability to run with the football, and as a result, he hasn’t been forced to learn excellence in the pocket.
And so it was that, standing in the pocket, looking over the field, Jackson failed to see Taron Johnson in his shallow zone a yard deep in the end zone, watching Jackson and waiting. Jackson threw, Johnson took a step to his left, directly in front of Jackson’s intended receiver, and intercepted the pass.
Relieved that the scoring threat had ended, I wanted Johnson to take a touchback and not risk being tackled at the two or the five. From his place in the end zone, Johnson saw a lot of running room to the right, so after regaining his balance, he took off, evading one tackler and cutting to his right. Suddenly, to the absolute astonishment of the 6,700 Bills fans who had been feeling the way Bills fans feel when the game could be slipping away, Johnson was free and heading upfield. There was no one there, no one except Tre’Davious White, who had broken upfield as soon as he saw Johnson catch the ball. Johnson had one man to beat, Lamar Jackson, the fastest man on the field and probably the only man who might catch him. Johnson veered toward the sideline, and now White was in position to provide the screen that Johnson needed. 101 yards for the touchdown. The entire Bills defense mashed Johnson against the stadium wall in celebration.
A joyous riot broke out in the stands. We couldn’t stop yelling, laughing, high-fiving (well, COVID air-high-fives), smiling at each other behind our masks, hugging. I wasn’t at the Comeback Game, but this must have been how it felt. This couldn’t possibly have happened, and yet it did.
It was 17-3, and the game was over. The Ravens made a couple of big mistakes in the fourth quarter (a snap over Jackson’s head that resulted in a concussion that ended his night, and a running into the kicker penalty that left the Bills’ offense in victory formation). The Ravens turned the ball over on downs deep in their own territory; the Bills offense couldn’t move the ball and Bass missed the field goal. It didn’t matter. The Bills defense was not going to allow the Ravens to score 14 points in less than a quarter.
After the game, for the first time, it occurred to me that the Bills would be playing in the AFC Championship game. For more than a decade, the AFC Championship game has been an unimaginable dream. Through three quarters of intense football on Saturday night there had been no time to contemplate such a prospect. And then the game ended, and the reality sank in.
The Bills are going to the AFC Championship game, one win away from the Super Bowl.
Everything about Saturday was unique.
The Rockpile Review is written to share the passion we have for the Buffalo Bills. That passion was born in the Rockpile; its parents were everyday people of western New York who translated their dedication to a full day’s hard work and simple pleasures into love for a pro football team.
Editor’s babble: Thanks to Mark Korber for his contributions to our blog. You won’t find Mark on Twitter, but you can find him posting at twobillsdrive.com’s Stadium Wall Message Board.