Maybe you have to know a Buffalo sports fan to completely understand the psychoses and the neuroses at work Saturday afternoon, the eternal waiting for the sky to fall and the other cleat to drop.
Thirty years later, the mere memory of “Wide Right” is enough to register heartburn. Twenty-two years on, say the name “Brett Hull” and the immediate, involuntary reply is “NO GOAL!” Twenty years and one day later, while the rest of the world identifies the remarkable end to the Titans-Bills playoff game of Jan. 8 as “Home-Run Throwback,” Buffalonians from Tonawanda to Cheektowaga, from Orchard Park to Amherst, refer to it as “Home Run Throw Forward.”
So, yes: remember all of these things when you consider what was infiltrating Western New York as the referee buried his head in the replay hood, 50 seconds to go, the Bills leading the Colts 27-24, carrying a quarter-century drought without a playoff win on their shoulders.
It sure looked like Indianapolis’ Zach Pascal had fumbled. It sure looked like the ruling on the field — down by contact — was about to be reversed. It sure looked like the Bills were going to get that first postseason victory since Dec. 30, 1995, when Jim Kelly threw for a touchdown and Thurman Thomas ran for 158 yards in a 37-22 win over Miami.
But it wasn’t overturned.
The Colts were still alive.
If you had friends who live in Buffalo, perhaps this is when the text messages started flooding your phone, most of them unprintable, all of them inspired by a lifetime of sporting angst. Buffalo hasn’t hosted a major league champion since the Bills won back-to-back AFL titles in 1964 and ’65.
That’s a lot of torment, compounded annually.
Only, a funny thing happened then. Just as it seemed Philip Rivers was going to drive a stake in a city’s heart, the Bills’ defense rose and said, “No.” The Colts never even got to try a game-tying field goal. And when Rivers’ last-second heave couldn’t even carry to the end zone — thereby making sure there would be no replication of the “Hail Murray” miracle that bit them in Week 10, in Phoenix — the Bills had their win. Buffalo could exhale.
And we can all keep alive hope for a Bills-Chiefs AFC Championship game in two weeks, which would surely be the game of the year, if not a game for the ages.
“We found a way to win,” said quarterback Josh Allen, who was terrific all day (324 yards, two touchdowns) even if he did deliver a shot of acid indigestion to the 6,700 fans in attendance at Bills Stadium and the hundreds of thousands of made Bills Mafia folks watching elsewhere by taking a 23-yard sack and fumbling on the Bills’ last offensive possession.
Maybe in other years, a Colt would have recovered.
Maybe in other years, Allen would have had to search for words of explanation, as he did a year ago, when he played unevenly and the Bills blew a 16-0 third-quarter lead in Houston in the first round. But this is this year. The Bills are now 14-3. They are alive. They are well. They are dangerous.
“One’s not good enough for us,” Allen said. “We need to find a way to put our best foot forward. And we really wanted to win a playoff game for these fans.”
One playoff game doesn’t fix everything, of course. It doesn’t veer Scott Norwood’s kick 5 feet to the left. It doesn’t allow a hockey official to notice Hull’s skate in the crease, keeping the 1999 Sabres alive for a Stanley Cup. It doesn’t erase the awful memory of Tennessee’s Frank Wycheck throwing a “lateral” to Kevin Dyson — quote marks essential — and Dyson dashing 75 yards for a touchdown.
(And, hell, who am I kidding: throw in Buffalo Bob Lanier busting up his knee in the 1970 East Regional Final, St. Bonaventure crushing Villanova, meaning the Bonnies wouldn’t bring the best player in America with them to the Final Four, wouldn’t get a shot at UCLA …)
None of those things were erased Saturday. But it sure made 6,700 people in the building, and a city filled with faithful fans, awfully happy.
“It sounded almost like it was full,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “Only in Buffalo.”
Score one for the good guys. They were due.