Football is back in Buffalo
September, 25, 2011
By James Walker | ESPN.com
Richard Mackson/US PresswireBills' kicker Rian Lindell's game-winning kick may have ushered in a new era in Buffalo.ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- A postgame stroll through Ralph Wilson Stadium revealed a mix of shock and uncontrollable excitement.
"Oh my God!" one Buffalo Bills fan said with his hands up. "Oh ... my ... God!"
Fans jumped and hugged each other following Buffalo's 34-31 upset win over the New England Patriots, the Bills' first win over New England since 2003. Chants of "Let's go Buffalo" and "3-and-0" could be heard throughout the stadium.
"We have a football team again!" another Bills fan screamed.
It's official: The Bills are a factor again in the AFC East. Buffalo is in sole possession of first after the Patriots and New York Jets lost for the first time in Week 3.
Buffalo hasn't had a winning season since 2004. The Bills haven't won double-digit games since 1999. It appears all that could change this season.
This Bills team is different from previous seasons. The 2011 Bills have heart and are fun to watch. Buffalo, which broke a 15-game losing streak against New England (2-1), has overcome deficits of 18 points or more the past two weeks.
Many Bills fans stayed in the stadium Sunday to celebrate with the players after their huge upset.
"There’s such a great connection between this franchise and this community," Bills safety George Wilson explained afterward. “We’re a blue-collar team in a blue-collar city. These fans have been with us through the ups and downs. They come out and support us even when we aren’t winning. ... I'm just happy they’re able to go to work on a Monday for a third consecutive week [with a win]."
The Bills are a young team that bottomed out during last season's 0-8 start. Buffalo is 7-4 since and heading in the right direction. It's a team filled with outcasts and overlooked players, starting with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and running back Fred Jackson (74 yards rushing, 87 yards receiving). This group doesn't have much name recognition nationally, but it's easy for Buffalo fans to root for.
Former Bills star running back Thurman Thomas, one of the links to Buffalo's four Super Bowl teams of the 1990s, congratulated players in the locker room after Sunday's game. He likes the new-look Bills but said there are differences from his Buffalo teams.
"The group we had, we had a lot of first-round draft picks and a lot of second-round draft picks," Thomas said. "This group, gosh, they're seventh-round picks. They're free agents, undrafted guys, but they're hungry. When you have that philosophy and that way of wanting to do things and make a name for themselves, it seems to come together."
Buffalo was the first team this season to solve the Tom Brady puzzle.
Brady entered the game on a record pace and had another solid output in terms of yards (386) and touchdowns (four). He threw for three touchdowns to give the Patriots a 21-0 lead, but Buffalo held New England to just 10 points in the second half and picked off Brady four times.
How did Buffalo do it? Route recognition and timing.
Brady made six or seven poor throws the entire game, but Buffalo got its hands on four of them. Two of Brady's four interceptions weren't his fault. Patriots running back Danny Woodhead dropped a ball near the end zone in the second quarter that was picked off by Bills safety Bryan Scott. Bills first-round pick Marcell Dareus also tipped a pass at the line of scrimmage that led to Drayton Florence's 27-yard touchdown return that put the Bills ahead for the first time in the fourth quarter. Florence, a nine-year veteran, called it the biggest interception of his career.
AP Photo/Derek GeeTom Brady had four interceptions in New England's loss to Buffalo.
Offensively, the Bills won the battles at the end of the half and at the end of the game.
Fitzpatrick -- who threw for 369 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions -- led Buffalo to 10 points in the final two minutes of the second quarter. Fitzpatrick also drove the Bills 70 yards in the final 3:25 to set up Rian Lindell's 26-yard field goal.
I asked Lindell in the locker room about the pressure of making that chip shot, perhaps the biggest kick in the last decade for Buffalo.
"I'll tell you what," Lindell said with a smile. "I would have just ran up that tunnel and kept on running if I missed."
Maybe that would have happened to the 2000-2010 Bills. But this is a new era in Buffalo. The breaks are starting to fall the Bills' way, as evidenced by Patriots receiver Chad Ochocinco's drop of a sure touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. Bills receiver Steve Johnson did the same thing last season in a Week 12 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Bills linebacker Nick Barnett, who played for the Packers' Super Bowl championship team last season, has been around a lot of good teams. He thinks Buffalo is on to something.
"This can be one of the best teams. It just depends on how we continue to grow," Barnett said. "It’s too early to talk about we're going to the Super Bowl or this and that. We still got some growth to do. But I think we're playing [well]. If the offense keeps putting up 30 points, there’s no way we should lose, ever."