This all started on Jan. 8, 2000, in Nashville, in what was called Adelphia Coliseum in those days. The Buffalo Bills, still owned by Ralph Wilson and coached by Wade Phillips, made the monumentally boneheaded decision to bench my guy Doug Flutie, who had been 10-5 quarterbacking the Bills that year and had lifted his team and a truly great football city, before their playoff game with the Titans in favor of Rob Johnson, mostly because Johnson was tall.
You know how that game ended, because everybody who follows pro football knows how it ended: With the football gods punishing Wilson and Wade Phillips with what will always be known as the Music City Miracle. The Bills scored to go ahead 16-15 with 16 seconds left. But on the ensuing kickoff, Frank Wycheck threw the ball with some trickeration across the field to Kevin Dyson, and Dyson ran 75 yards for a touchdown that not only knocked the Bills out of that football January, but knocked them out of the playoffs for the next 17 seasons.
It eventually became the longest drought in American professional sports, one that did not end until Sunday night, when it was the Bills who felt as if they were the beneficiaries of a football miracle from the Bengals and the Ravens, one that put Buffalo and western New York State back in play in the NFL playoffs.
The Bills had done what they needed to do, beating the Dolphins in South Florida. But they still needed help. The Bengals, going nowhere at this time of year the way the Bills went nowhere for far too long at this time of year, had fourth-and-12 in the last minute in Baltimore. If the Ravens, leading 27-24, could get a stop against Andy Dalton, they went to the playoffs.
If you are a Bills fan, you know: Fourth-and-12 in that moment felt like fourth-and-17 seasons. On a day when the Bills had only a 13 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN. Only Dalton threw the ball down the field to Tyler Boyd, and not only did he get his team a first down, he got his team a touchdown. The Bengals in that moment dropped the Ravens. And in the visitors' locker room at Hard Rock Stadium, where the Bills were watching the end of Bengals-Ravens, and all over western New York, it was as if the ball had dropped early for New Year's Eve.
I grew up a couple of hours from Buffalo. I know how important the Bills are in their part of the football world. A long way from East Rutherford, N.J., where the Giants and Jets play home games even as they still call themselves the New York Giants and New York Jets, the Bills are what my dear friend, the late Mario Cuomo, always called "our state team" when he was governor of New York the way his son Andrew is now.
Mario Cuomo died three years ago, Jan. 1, 2015. I was thinking a lot about him this weekend, for a lot of reasons. And one of them involved his Bills. Cuomo came out of Queens, N.Y., but became a Bills guy once he moved to Albany.
"Pop loved the Bills," Chris Cuomo, one of the hosts of "New Day" on CNN, said on Monday morning.
They still have the Sabres in Buffalo. They lost NBA basketball a long time ago. But sometimes you get the idea that Bills football is as important in the western part of their state as big college football is in states where there is no pro team. The history there, of course, is proud, because of the Bills of the 1990s, who made it to four straight Super Bowls, even if they lost them all. You want to know how tough those Bills teams were, to keep coming back to the big game the way they did? No losing Super Bowl team has made it back to the Super Bowl since the Bills last did it in 1994.
For too many seasons since what happened in Nashville in January of 2000, they have seemed to have the wrong front office people and the wrong coaches and the wrong quarterbacks. And even this year, with an exciting kid like Tyrod Taylor at quarterback, one who runs around the way Flutie did in the old days, their rookie coach, Sean McDermott, benched Taylor for a game in favor of Nathan Peterman, who threw so many interceptions in his one start that you started to wonder if he were actually right-handed.
But they came back. They were right there with the Patriots in the first half of their second-to-last regular season game, got a touchdown pass from Taylor to Kelvin Benjamin that was stupidly overturned, fell apart in the second half. The odds against them making the playoffs going into the last weekend of the regular season looked a lot longer than fourth-and-12 for Andy Dalton.
But they hung on to win. The Ravens couldn't hang on. They lost. Bills win a trip to Jacksonville, for a game against the Jaguars, coached by Doug Marrone, who opted out of his Bills contract a couple of years ago because he was sure he was going to go to Jersey and coach the Jets because, let's face it, who wouldn't want a dream job like that? The Bills don't care. They would be happy to play a postseason game on the North Pole.
It is not just a good thing for the veterans on their team. It is a great thing. And so much deeper for their fans. Because they truly are great fans, who have kept coming out for North Pole Sundays late in Bills seasons, always hoping that things would finally break their way. The stadium was once called Rich Stadium and then Ralph Wilson Stadium and now it's New Era Field.
Which sounds right, right about now, for what Bills fans hope is a new era for them at last. Talk about ringing out the old.
"I could also picture Bills fans crying and hugging in homes and bars afterward," the fine columnist Jerry Sullivan wrote in the Buffalo News. "Maybe the standard is lower nowadays, and the Bills are one of the most unlikely playoff teams ever, but tell that to a legion of young fans who had no memory of their team reaching the postseason."
When the Bills' plane arrived at the Air Cargo Center in Buffalo at 1 o'clock Monday morning, with the temperature below zero, there were hundreds of Bills fans to greet them. There were a lot of good playoff stories in pro football this season. None better than this one. They waited a long time for this one in Buffalo. The Bills finally came out of the cold.