After leading the 70,000 chilled-to-the-marrow fans in a series of “Let’s Go Buffalo” chants, Thurman Thomas handed the microphone to the man who handed him the football thousands of times during their glory days. Donning a blue, No. 17 Josh Allen Bills jersey, Jim Kelly called upon the pep-talk words their former coach Marv Levy made famous.
“Where would you rather be,” Kelly shouted over the loudspeakers, the fans echoing his words in unison, “than right here, right now?”
And then Kelly dropped the mic to the turf.
Had there been a roof covering Highmark Stadium Saturday, it surely would have blown off. On a night when wind-chills dipped into negative territory, passions ran fever high. A new generation finally was able to enjoy what previous ones had in the early 1990s, when Thomas, Kelly and Levy led the Bills to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls.
Just as those teams had to dispense with the domination of Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins, this team needed, once and for all, to put the torment of Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots to rest. And, man oh man, did the Bills ever do that, eviscerating the perennial AFC East kingpins, 47-17, in a game that wasn’t that close, thanks to Allen’s five-touchdown performance. With four victories in its previous five meetings against the Patriots, Buffalo has officially put the Curse of the Hoodie to rest. The king is dead. Long live the new king.
And, now, it’s on to other exorcisms, starting with Sunday night’s AFC Divisional round game against the Chiefs in Kansas City. The Bills already exacted a small measure of revenge when they pummeled the Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium October 10 as Allen out-played the great Patrick Mahomes in a 38-20 beatdown. Still, for Buffalo to prove it’s the new conference standard-bearer it’s going to need to avenge last season’s AFC Championship Game loss to the Chiefs.
Both teams are in totally different places than they were three months ago. Buffalo now has a legitimate run game to complement its red-hot passer and top-ranked defense, while Kansas City appears to have snapped out of its early-season funk. In its 21-point rout of the offensively challenged Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday’s Wildcard game, Mahomes passed for 404 yards and five touchdowns. Although the Chiefs have home field advantage, the Wizards of Odds have installed them as just 2.5-point favorites, meaning if the game were played on a neutral field, the Bills actually would be half-point favorites. But it’s being played in Arrowhead, where Kansas City is 8-2 this season, so the Bills have their work cut out for them. But if they continue to play even remotely as well as they did last week, they should advance.
“I really like their chances,” Kelly told me Monday morning. “They won there not that long ago, and I think this is a better Bills team, now that they’ve got the run game going. It’s important to have that added dimension, especially this time of year. They’re definitely going to throw it — you’d be stupid not to when you have a quarterback as good as Josh — but having a run game the other team has to respect will just make them even more effective passing the ball.”
While Kelly wore an Allen jersey Saturday, Thomas paid homage to No. 26, current Bills rushing leader Devin Singletary. The third-year running back has begun conjuring memories of Thomas by averaging 93 rushing yards his last three games. Singletary has emerged as the wheelhorse of a newly discovered ground attack that is averaging 192-yards per contest in recent weeks. Credit the Bills revived offensive line, which has done a wonderful job recently opening holes and protecting the quarterback. Allen hasn’t been sacked the last four games. The Patriots rarely came close to pressuring him, and he made them pay.
This week’s task is sure to be tougher. Mahomes and the Chiefs dynamic corps of receivers will test the Bills top-ranked secondary, and you can’t help but wonder if this will be the first time the absence of injured lockdown corner Tre’Davious White is felt. Although the Chiefs defense is vastly better than the unit the Bills faced in October, it still will have its hands full trying to stop Allen. Kelly is admittedly biased, but he believes Allen has emerged as the best all-around quarterback in football.
“The kid is a hell of an athlete, blessed with great size and a great arm,” Kelly said. “I just enjoy watching him. The play’s never done with him. You never know when he’s going to take off running, which has to scare the hell out of those defenders trying to tackle a guy 6-foot-5, 240. There are a lot of very good quarterbacks in the league. But there’s only one Josh Allen. He can do it all.”
After losing the AFC Championship Game last January, the Bills acknowledged the Chiefs were the conference standard-bearers. But that can change with a Buffalo victory Sunday.
And if the Bills and top-seed Tennessee advance, that will set up another clash between those teams on the Titans home turf. At stake will be a Super Bowl berth and some more ghosts to exorcise. Nashville, of course, is the site of the “Music City Miracle” — the heart-breaking playoff loss in 2000 that began the unraveling that led to the Bills 17-year playoff famine. And earlier this year, the Bills suffered a three-point loss there after Allen slipped on the turf on a quarterback sneak that could have secured a victory.
Should the Bills atone for those close calls, there is one more victory that could provide sweet revenge while bringing that elusive Lombardi Trophy to Western New York. After all the agita and angst Tom Brady has induced, it would be so sweet if Buffalo not only won the Super Bowl, but did so against Tom Terrific and the defending champion Tampa Bay Bucs.
“I don’t like to talk about them winning the Super Bowl because I don’t want to jinx them,” Kelly said. “But if that were to happen, that would be awesome. Not only for the players, but for the fans who have stuck with the team since way back in the day. Bills Mafia so deserves this. But I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.”
It’s best to take it one game and one exorcism at a time.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.