Today’s series of four late afternoon games are unambiguously momentus for the Buffalo Bills, as well as the three other teams competing for the two remaining AFC wild card spots: Ravens, Titans, and Chargers. As a Bills fan born in 1998, today could shape up to be the best day of my NFL fandom. The odds are slim -- 17% per FiveThirtyEight and 20% from The Upshot -- but a Bills win followed by a Ravens loss or both the Titans and Chargers losing would deliver a generation of Bills fans a sight they’ve never seen before: a 17th Bills game in a season. Titans fans could also see meaningful January football for the first time in 10 years, and if we want to get technical, LA fans could see the LA Chargers back in the playoffs for the first time in 57 years. No one doubts that any of these four teams earning their first playoff game in at least three seasons would be a refreshing change of pace, and anyone can see the significance of the Bills ending the longest postseason drought in major North American sports. Nonetheless, fans cannot help but think of the futility of wild card games, especially in the AFC since Peyton Manning and Tom Brady entered the league.
In the long run, the outlook is bleak for all four of these teams as well as the Falcons and Seahawks, the two NFC teams in contention for their 6th seed (The Panthers are presently the 5th seed but could still steal the 2nd seed with a lot of help). Only 6 of the 51 Super Bowl champions have been wild card teams, with 2 of the 6 finishing the regular season with 10-6 records and the other 4 having won 11 or 12 games each. It’s a certainty that at least one wild card team in the AFC will be 9-7 at best, and as many as three 9-7 teams could sneak in in total. The only 9-7 team to hoist the Lombardi was the 2011 New York Giants, who also won as a wild card team four years earlier. In fact, hosting a wild card game is a heavy lode, as the last team to reach the Super Bowl that didn’t earn a first round bye was Joe Flacco’s 2012 Ravens. If the point of professional sports is to win the championship (it is) then playing in the wild card round is merely an obstacle that hurts draft stocks, injures players, and almost always only prolongs the inevitable. But fans don’t only care about championships. As a Bills fan, I have been waiting my whole life for one measly wild card game and here are just a few reasons why.
17+ Meaningful Games
I hate rooting for my team to lose on week 17, but most seasons, I have done exactly that unless the Bills have had a chance to play spoiler. Waiting until next year sucks, I want every game to be exciting. Football offseasons are long and football fans get fewer games than just about any other sport. It’s a waste of a season when not every game matters, and the extra playoff game is the icing on the cake of a complete season. Just the idea of a wild card game has made this the best week 17 I can remember. The last meaningful game for the Bills in week 17 was in 2004. To make matters worse, the Bills had a win-and-get-in scenario against a Steelers team that was resting its starters and still lost.
Watching Fan Favorites Reap What They Sew
A fan of any long suffering franchise can tell you that one of the most bitter pills to swallow is knowing that my team has wasted the better part of many careers. The Bill I’ll be the happiest for, if all goes well, is Kyle Williams. The former fifth round pick is the greatest defensive tackle in Bills history and delivers the most inspiring pre-game speeches and post game interviews ever posted to the NFL’s Instagram. He’s spent all 12 of his NFL seasons in Buffalo, more than anyone else on the roster, and will be a free agent this off-season. If the Bills keep wining, he’ll have more games as a Bill for sure and won’t have to worry about leaving for a competitor. The Bills already chipped in on making Takeo Spikes the NFL player to play the most seasons without a postseason appearance (15), and I’ll lose sleep if Kyle breaks that record. LeSean McCoy will have rushed for more yards than anyone in the league since he joined the Bills, assuming he gets the seven yards needed to surpass the resting Todd Gurley. He’s been the Bills’ only chance at having a true superstar on the team during The Drought, and the Bills’ irrelevance has caused him to get less attention than less productive backs who happen to have a star or a G on their helmet. The same goes for the rookie I believe would have Defensive Rookie of The Year locked up if national media paid attention to his team: Tre’Davious White. Tyrod Taylor is probably a top five all-time Bills quarterback (name one good Bills QB outside of Jim Kelly). The two most famous behind Kelly are better known for getting replaced by Tom Brady and running for vice president (Drew Bledsoe and Jack Kemp). The opportunity to see any of their franchises’ unheralded stars shine is not lost on the fan of any long-suffering franchise.
Ending the Suffering
Getting bounced in another team’s stadium to end the season can’t be fun. But it sure beats 8-8 and no playoffs. The Drought is embarrassing. The Bills are just three seasons away from tying the Saints, and just one loss away from taking sole possession of second, on the longest Super Bowl era playoff drought leaderboard. Perhaps Browns fans and a few other fanbases have had it worse this millenium. But Buffalo fans are the only ones subject to this brand of torture. Year in and year out, seasons pass that amount to nothing. Even the Sabres are on the brink of the longest NHL postseason drought. One good Carolina Hurricanes season could give Buffalo the longest drought in every major pro sport it plays. My last postseason memory as a Buffalo fan is the Sabres blowing 3-1 lead in game 6 on Easter 2011 and then getting blown out two days later in game 7. A playoff berth is far from the antithesis of Wide Right, but for once, I will be able to look back and say that we had a good season.
A New Hope
One possibility I’ve ignored so far is that some wild card teams actually can win the Super Bowl. The 2017 Buffalo Bills are not one of those teams, and probably not even a wild card team. For those teams that happened to share their division with a juggernaut or got hot in the last few weeks, there is plenty to get excited about immediately. But for the majority of wild card teams, a playoff berth means a step in the right direction, or in the Seahawks or Falcons’ case, there is still reason to believe in the team. Any AFC team to reach the wild card this year will have indisputable evidence of an improved team. Even if success doesn’t carry over to the next year, the fanbase will see a resurgence of enthusiasm. A 2016 wild card berth didn’t do much for the 2017 Raiders, but I can guarantee that their fans look forward to 2018 more than any season from 2004-2015. The Bills haven’t been contenders since the 90s, making the playoffs can change that narrative. If the everything shakes out in the Bills favor today, a new era of Bills history is born. The 2000-2(?)?? Bills can be history. The Now Bills might be a few hours away.
As always, pro-football-reference was a huge help in writing this article