Early in the fourth quarter, my son Oscar and I are watching Thaddeus Lewis try, with dwindling success, to get the Buffalo Bills back into a game that started surprisingly well, but felt like it was steadily slipping away.
“If they score a touchdown here, then stop Cincinnati and get the ball back, they could tie the game,” I explain to the 7-year-old, as part of the pro-football-brainwashing program I have been conducting since his older brother, Jackson, was a baby.
Suddenly, I’m the kid who used to sit in front of the television, trying to compute how many consecutive onside kicks the Bills of the late 1970s would need to recover, followed immediately by Joe Ferguson touchdown strikes, in order to pull off an infrequent victory while my Dad sat in his chair, shaking his head and saying, with a taunting half-smile, “They’re going to lose.”
Of course, he was almost always right.
I resist the genetic urge to antagonize my son, not wanting to bump his burgeoning loyalties in any direction. Such preferences seem to stem from geographic proximity to a team, or an attraction to a color or logo. Oscar has both going on — “I don’t know if I would vote for the Buffalo Bills or Miami Dolphins,” he has admitted several times this season.
But being a somewhat responsible parent, I gently tell Oscar that the chances of the Bills scoring two touchdowns in about 10 minutes of game time is pretty unlikely, given that they had managed only one in the previous 50.
I do not even try to explain that Thaddeus Lewis was not even a member of Buffalo’s 53-man roster a week earlier, or even introduce him to the concept of a 53-man roster. At this point, most of his football understanding (particularly as it pertains to down-and-distance and the difference between a field goal and a touchdown) stems from the mode in NCAA College Football ’11, a discounted edition of the soon-to-be-extinct franchise, in which relatively realistic players are replaced by a roster of identical mascots from each university.
After I provide this dose of reality, he looks at me with a solemn sincerity normally reserved for conversations about Santa Claus and says, “I believe in them.”
On the next snap, Lewis gets buried under Bengals defenders, one of five Cincinnati sacks on the day.
Poor little guy’s about to get one of those sadly necessary life lessons, I figure.
Then Lewis lofts one to a wide-open Scott Chandler on fourth down, and it’s a seven-point game.
The defense comes up not with one stop, but two, sandwiched around a three-and-out series from the offense, leaving Lewis with 86 yards to cover in 2:40 to reach overtime.
Which he does, tying things up with as pretty a 40-yard touchdown shot as you’ll ever see — to rookie Marquise Goodwin, no less.
Oscar does not gloat. His enthusiasm for Buffalo’s comeback is somewhat blunted when I explain the concept of overtime, which means an indefinite extension of the time before he, and the XBox, regain control of the television.
As it almost has to be after the high drama of the closing moments of regulation, the extra time proves anti-climactic. A false start by tackle Cordy Glenn dooms Buffalo’s lone possession to end with a punt from deep in their own end. Brandon Tate’s 29-yard punt return — the result of a rather low effort by prodigal punter Brian Moorman in combination with a missed holding call on the Bengals — makes the final moments feel like the end of the season opener, with Tom Brady slowly guiding the Patriots to a decisive field goal.
It does not, however, feel like the myriad close losses of the past couple decades. The Bills fell to 2-4, but have entered the final two minutes of every game either with the lead or within a touchdown of it.
When Mike Nugent’s 43-yard field goal ends it, along with Lewis’ first shot at a place in Bills lore, Oscar is holding the remote that switches the input from the cable feed to the XBox.
“That’s OK — they’ll win next time,” Oscar says with a heartening amount of perspective.
I do not tell him that Buffalo’s next game is against the Dolphins.
Among the finer points of Cincinnati’s 27-24 win that Oscar may have missed:
— For a guy with one previous professional start and less than a week as an official member of the team, that Thaddeus Lewis guy looked pretty good.
Yes, running with the ball as if daring a Bengals defender to slap it away led to a Cincinnati touchdown and he looked a bit overwhelmed on the occasions that the pocket collapsed on him, but did just about everything else right.
Unlike fellow free-agent fill-in Jeff Tuel (and several other recently former Buffalo quarterbacks, including first-round pick J.P. Losman), he did not obviously lock in on his intended receivers and read and exploited Cincinnati’s coverage on both touchdown throws, as well as a 47-yarder to T.J. Graham that set up Lewis’ 3-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
He did enough to make reports that he had suffered a sprained foot the biggest post-game story, at least until an MRI showed no ligament damage.
If nothing else, he earned himself at least a few interceptions before fans start calling for Matt Flynn, the former Green Bay backup who washed out with Seattle and Oakland before the Bills signed him Monday to provide some insurance at quarterback.
— For the first time in recent memory, the Bills showed an ability to run the ball even when the opposing defense knows it’s coming. C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson and Tashard Choice combined to average nearly 5 yards a carry, helping keep Lewis in manageable third-down situations most of the day.
— Cincinnati’s running game was even more productive, thanks in large part to systemically lousy tackling. Buffalo gave up 483 total yards, but first kept the Bengals from turning a 24-10 game into a blowout, then prevented them from running out the clock, setting up Lewis’ late heroics.
Kiko Alonso did not come up with an interception, but was again everywhere at once, getting in on 22 tackles.
Da’Norris Searcy’s total of 16 tackles was more troubling than impressive — it’s never a good sign when a safety, the last line of defense, has to make that many stops.
David Staba has written about the Buffalo Bills, among other topics, since 1990 for a variety of outlets, including We Want Marangi since way back in 2012.