Heading into Sunday’s season opener in Chicago, the narrative went, the Buffalo Bills were a franchise floating toward another painfully below-average season, without an owner and with a coach and quarterback who, entering their second seasons, appeared increasingly lacking in the skill sets required for their respective jobs.
So the Bills produced big plays in all three phases of the game to knock off a consensus contender in the NFC, looking like anything but a team on the verge of open mutiny or early surrender.
Buffalo’s 23-20 overtime win does not guarantee anything. The Bills produced five first-Sunday victories over the previous 14 years, and none served as a springboard to anywhere. It did, however, clearly demonstrate the foolishness of relying on the legions of alleged NFL Insiders for anything but entertainment purposes.
Before the game, the team knocked down
— or successfully spun, depending on your level of cynicism — a national report
that coach Doug Marrone, CEO Russ Brandon and personnel director Jim Monos and/or general manager Doug Whaley loudly went at it during an August practice. Just highly competitive middle-aged men being highly competitive middle-aged men, went the official version of events.
The original report led to all manner of hand-wringing among the locals, with at least one Rochester radio pundit and any number of talk-show callers and internet commenters loudly wailing that Marrone had lost the team, whatever that means, and should be fired on the eve of his second season in Buffalo.
If the Bills are lost, confused or dispirited as a result of all the yelling, they certainly did a good job of hiding it on Sunday.
Things started out in the fashion to which Buffalo fans have become accustomed: A three-and-out on the Bills’ first drive, followed by a quick Chicago drive to a touchdown less than four minutes in.
Which is where things figured to come apart completely, given the widely reported fragile mental state of the visitors.
Instead, E.J. Manuel started looking like a first-round draft pick, hitting Robert Woods deep to convert one third down and Sammy Watkins short for another, then gliding in himself for Buffalo’s first touchdown.
The defense caused turnovers that the offense turned into a 10-point halftime lead. After the Bears wiped out that deficit and appeared set to take over completely, defensive tackle Kyle Williams played Jay Cutler as deftly as safety Corey Graham had in the first half. Williams’ first career pick set up Dan Carpenter’s 33-yard field goal, which gave Buffalo a 20-17 lead with 4:02 left.
That would normally be more than enough time for the Bills to give up the winning touchdown, but this time, they stopped the Bears twice (though home team’s decision to eschew giving the ball to Matt Forte, who piled up 169 total yards from scrimmage, on third-and-1 with victory just 19 yards away, has led to much irrationality in Chicago
Then, on the only drive Buffalo would need in overtime, Mike Williams sandwiched a terrific catch between C.J. Spiller’s best run of the day and perhaps Fred Jackson’s best run ever
(seen above), and the Bills are 1-0 for the first time since 2011.
Of course, Buffalo started out 5-2 in those days of FitzMagic, only to drop eight of their last nine and finish at a painfully familiar 6-10. So we’ll hold off on proclaiming the arrival of Marrone, Manuel or anybody else in the blue, white and red as legitimate NFL anything.
For this week, though, grim recent history means little. Miami, coming off an upset of longtime AFC East tyrant New England, arrives in town this weekend for the biggest Bills-Dolphins game since Drew Bledsoe was Buffalo’s franchise quarterback.
Which is all a key part of the NFL’s genius, evil or otherwise. Saturation coverage of the sport, by way of the traditional networks, the internet, even the league-sanctioned cable channel devoted to nothing but The Shield, has created a legion of experts — at least in their own minds. During each offseason and every week of the regular schedule, a consensus forms and is widely disseminated. Then the games itself blow it up.
That league-wide randomness feeds ratings, attendance and the hype machine. The illusion of access by the media has also helped the NFL manage potential off-field problems like diversity in front-office and coaching hires, longstanding issues with drugs, both performance-enhancing and recreational, and the vexing existence of Richie Incognito.
Monday’s release of video showing of Ray Rice’s horrific punches to the head of his then-fiance in an Atlantic City casino elevator showed that the NFL’s media strategy is not foolproof. Across the internet, longtime league shills reacted angrily to the realization they had been duped, convinced by Roger Goodell’s misinformation and their own shoddy reporting that Janay Palmer had somehow left the poor Ravens running back with no option but to render her unconscious.
The video shattered that story line, leaving the NFL looking at best indifferent to domestic violence wrought by its employees, and at worst serving as a cynical enabler.
The Bills and Dolphins have no such public-relations crises to manage at this early point in the season. Only a football game on Sunday which, to the surprise of just about everyone who claims to be in the know, actually means something.