On Sunday, their worst was good enough.
Against Oakland, the Bills committed more turnovers and were found guilty of more penalties than their opponents, gave up two huge plays to a barely known wide receiver who is not related to a local Congressman with the same surname and generally behaved like a team determined to disprove all the nice things said and written about them during the season’s first two weeks.
And still, they won.
Contrast that with last year’s Monday night game against Dallas, when Buffalo returned two interceptions and a kickoff for touchdowns, led by 11 points in the fourth quarter, and still lost.
Or the 2006 season opener, when a general malaise in the second half cost the Bills a 10-point lead and a readily achievable upset of New England, on the road, no less, in Jauron’s debut with Buffalo.
Or the 2005 visit to Miami, when J.P. Losman and Lee Evans hooked up for three touchdowns in the first quarter, then, like their teammates, spent the rest of the afternoon napping on their laurels as the Dolphins stumbled all the way back for a 24-23 win.
We could go on. And on. But then we’d eventually have to revisit the Flutie Bowl, when a special-teams breakdown cost the 2001 Bills a game they had seemingly won behind Rob Johnson. Then there was that playoff game in Tennessee, when, well, you know. And dredging all that up again wouldn’t do anyone any good.
Yes, Sunday’s 24-23 score ended in Buffalo’s favor in large part because the opponent was Oakland, a franchise that would be truly pathetic had it not been the game’s most obnoxious for the past four decades. With the worst record in football over the past five seasons and a doddering owner who has thoroughly undermined his coach, yet seems unable to fire him, the Raiders were supposed to serve as patsies for one of the biggest surprises of the young National Football League season.
That they did. It just took longer than expected.
Even for a team notorious for stupid behavior, the decision by Johnnie Lee Higgins—whose 69-yard return of the opening kickoff set up Oakland’s first score and stunned the home crowd into submission for much of the day—to taunt Bills safety Donte Whitner on the way into the end zone at the end of his 84-yard fourth-quarter journey was a singular demonstration of how bad teams find ways to lose.
Whitner responded by tackling Higgins deep in the end zone, drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty but inciting his teammates and the fans who had not already headed for the parking lot.
From that moment, with 6:23 remaining, the Bills commenced wiping out the nine-point deficit Higgins’ touchdown had created, piling up 115 yards while the Raiders managed to move 6 feet backwards.
Fortunately for Higgins, pro football teams fly home after road games, allowing players to sleep in their own beds and not in the same building. Otherwise, something like this might well have happened.
While Al Davis’ poorly concealed scorn for his coach made Lane Kiffin a sympathetic figure coming in to the day, the youngest-looking coach in sports history showed that his creepy boss might just be on to something.
Apparently hoping the Bills would forget to try a game-winning field goal before the clock expired, Kiffin didn’t bother to use either of his two remaining timeouts during Buffalo’s final drive, eschewing any chance at giving his offense one last chance to win it. Then again, Oakland’s offensive coaches spent the entire second half trying to run out the clock, allowing JaMarcus Russell to throw only three passes after half time, even though he completed the first two, with one going to Higgins for what should have been the clinching points.
The Bills did not win only because the Raiders stink, however.
They won because Marshawn Lynch shows the same determination while carrying the ball as when avoiding discussing his driving habits with the authorities.
And because their defense stuffed Oakland’s running game at the most critical moments.
And because their offensive line recovered from a miserable opening three quarters to give Trent Edwards all the time he needed to lead an offense that managed but seven points in the first 52 minutes to 17 in the last eight.
Buffalo won’t be able to coast for 87 percent of the day and expect to win many of the next 13 games. But for the first time since Bruce Smith and the dozens of long-ago teammates on hand to honor him during a halftime ceremony roamed the turf in Orchard Park, these Bills understand that winning doesn’t necessarily mean being the better team all the time.
Dave Staba has covered the Bills since 1990. He welcomes e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. A full report on Sunday’s game will appear in the September 25 issue of Artvoice.