Buffalo isn’t a frontrunner kind of town. It’s a too-often forgotten town; living in Manhattan’s considerable shadow, dismissed by critics who focus on the piles of snow rather than the glorious summers, a city always trying to remind everyone it’s still there.
That’s OK. The charms of Western New York aren’t for everyone. In some ways, the underdog mentality that is instilled in nearly every resident is the whole point of the place, a positive not a negative, a cherished feature, not some bug.
The Bills have long reflected that. Even when they were a powerhouse in the early 1990s, reaching four Super Bowls (and, of course, losing them all) the team’s identity was based on toughness, physicality and embracing the challenges as playoff runs ran deeper and deeper into winter.
Bruce Smith. Thurman Thomas. Jim Kelly. Darryl Talley. They might have scored a million points with Marv Levy’s no-huddle offense, but that core was always there.
None of this nostalgia can help the current Bills. None of it will score a point or break up a pass Sunday when they face Tampa Bay and longtime nemesis Tom Brady (32-3 as a starter against them when he was in New England).
It’s all just sepia-toned memories. You can build a hard-nosed team in Maui or someplace. And it’s not like the players are working side jobs at Tonawanda Engine or something.
It is Buffalo’s identity, however. And as the Bills come out of a reeling week where they were not just pushed around by a Patriots team that rushed 46 times and passed just three, but then had to endure being called “soft,” asked if their performance was “embarrassing,” and had their coach somehow try to tamper down praise of Bill Belichick.
“Let’s not give more credit than we need to give credit to Bill Belichick in this one,” Sean McDermott said. “…With all due respect, it’s not a Bill Belichick-type thing.”
McDermott was trying to say that had Buffalo capitalized on its chances, it would have won the game. That’s true, but that’s also true in every game. It didn’t. New England did. Hence the guy with six Super Bowls gets all the credit and the guy with three winning seasons so far in his career should probably just find something else to focus on.
It’s been that kind of week for the Bills. New England didn’t expose their run defense or inherent toughness or their oddly constructed roster that seems built for somewhere in the South, not the snow belt.
Tennessee and Indianapolis did that. The Pats just amplified it on national television. Suddenly a season where the Bills were the overwhelming favorite to win the AFC East (again) and were an extremely viable pick to reach the AFC Championship game (again) and even take that long-awaited Super Bowl is on the brink with a 7-5 record.
It’s dangerous to suggest a single game, or even a single three-game stretch (at Tampa, Carolina, at New England), will define a season and a team, but this feels about as close as it gets. Who are these Bills?
Will the Buccaneers happily make Buffalo prove it can stop Leonard Fournette before having Brady play-action pass the ball the rest of the afternoon? And can the Bills actually get their own ground game going in the face of a Tampa Bay defense allowing just 84.3 yards per game on the ground, the second-best number in the league?
“We’ve got to be able to run the football and we’ve got to be able to stop the run,” McDermott said. “Those things don’t change. The message hasn’t changed in terms of the physicality and the necessity for physicality in what we do. That’s why we start training camp the way we do, running the football. We’ve got to win the line of scrimmage.”
Make no mistake: Buffalo would gladly take any win it can against 9-3 Bucs, but while some shootout might feel good and look good, it could really use a game where it shows the rest of the league, let alone itself, that it can stand its ground in the trenches.
Buffalo appears to be built to beat Kansas City, with a defense that can cover guys all over the field. That’s who took them out one game from the Super Bowl last year. It’s just in the AFC, the script has been flipped and all of these likely playoff teams that just ran over them (Tennessee, Indy and New England) are all exploiting the trend of defenses full of small, fast guys by going ground and pound.
McDermott can talk physicality, but talk doesn’t close out of a block or stuff a third-and-short. It has to happen. The idea that Buffalo is weak or wimpy is a comparative insult, of course. These are still professional football players. They can be as tough.
If not now, though, then when? It’s one thing to lose. It’s another to get beaten.
The spotlight is on the Bills one more time, late Sunday window against Tom Brady. Then two weeks later in Foxborough for the rematch.
Everyone is waiting and watching to see just what they are made of, while wondering if this is going to carom off into a season of supreme disappointment, even by franchise standards.
The Bills represent Buffalo. They need to play like Buffalo.