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Soaring Bills expectations conjure Super Bowl memories

The similarities are striking, the comparisons inevitable. The last time expectations were this stratospheric was in the summer of 1991, when, following the heartbreak of “Wide Right,” the Buffalo Bills were everybody’s darlings to win the Super Bowl. And, so, here we go again, all these years later. As Van “The Man” Miller used to advise before opening kickoffs, “Fasten your seatbelts.” Eight months after that gut-punch playoff loss to Kansas City – a loss that forever more will be known as “13 Seconds” – the Bills are near-consensus favorites to win it all.

And the analogies between then and now are not only acknowledged but welcomed by the men who guided the franchise to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s.

“You know, I’ve seen this movie before,’’ said Bill Polian, the architect of that glorious run. “And the only thing that’s missing is a happy ending.”

Indeed.

Long-time Bills fans need no reminder how those glory days featured gory endings, starting with Super Bowl 25 when Scott Norwood’s potential game-winning 47-yard field goal sailed wide right. Pigskin pundits and prognosticators remained bullish on the Bills the following year, figuring Buffalo would finally bring home that elusive, silver Lombardi Trophy. Alas, it was not to be, as the Bills lost the big game again. That would be followed by lopsided Super Bowl defeats the next two seasons, and that would be that, as age, injuries and departures slammed that window of opportunity shut.

But just as quarterback Josh Allen reminds many of Jim Kelly, and coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane conjure memories of Marv Levy and Polian, this team has wedged that old window open. And just as the Bills of yore bounced back from the agony of “Wide Right,” there’s a feeling this bunch will use the pain of squandering away a playoff victory with just 13 seconds remaining last January as motivation to do something no Buffalo team has done before.

“After we lost that first Super Bowl, I was mad – I mean really mad,’’ said former Bills linebacker Darryl Talley, one of the leaders of those teams. “And I stayed mad that entire off-season, right into the regular season. But I’m one of those competitors that can take anger and turn it into positive energy. And that’s what I did, and so did my teammates. We played like men on a mission that following season. And, I sense this team is the same way. I think they are going to be on a mission in 2022.”

Polian concurs. He recalls how the Bills’ Super Bowl run was preceded by plenty of turbulence. A loss in the AFC Championship Game in Cincinnati on Jan. 8, 1989, was followed by a tumultuous season in which a team known as the “Bickering Bills” appeared ready to implode.

“You experience some adversity, and, hopefully, you learn from it, and grow stronger and closer as a team,’’ said Polian, who earned NFL Executive of the Year honors five times while constructing Super Bowl teams in Buffalo and Indianapolis, and a playoff team in Carolina. “The modern-day Bills have been through rough spots and have continued to grow and get better. The addition of [free-agent edge rusher] Von Miller might wind up being the final piece of the puzzle.”

The most important piece, of course, remains Allen, a freakishly gifted quarterback whose combination of size (6-foot-5, 240 pounds), arm strength, running ability, toughness, and leadership skills is incredibly rare, perhaps unique.  “Amazingly, as great as he’s been these past two seasons, we have to remind ourselves he’s still only 26-years-old,’’ Polian said. “He’s only going to get better, as he works more with his receivers and becomes more adept at reading defenses. Having played in a bunch of high stakes games is only going to help him.”

Of all of Allen’s attributes, the one that impresses Talley most is his grit.

“Josh showed that in the Kansas City playoff game, when he did everything in his power to will his team to victory,’’ he said. “I love the way he competes every play and every second of every play. I’ll never forget how, two years ago, he fumbled a snap, and, despite having two linebackers ready to clobber him, he picked up the ball and bulled through them for a first down. Some quarterbacks wouldn’t even have tried to recover the fumble, let alone pick it up and try for the first down. When that happened, I said, ‘Look out NFL, ’cause this kid is coming.’ ”

The national love being shown the Bills has many of their fans worried. Incidents such as “Wide Right,” “13 Seconds,” “Home Run Throwback,” and “No Goal” have taught them to fear the worst. Many of my friends who are diehards wish Buffalo was still under the radar.

“I know where they are coming from, but you have to embrace the ride,’’ Talley said. “This team is really good, and I’m interested to see how they are going to respond to being the hunted rather than the hunters. It’s a whole different perspective when you have to play from the front of the pack instead of from the middle or the back.”

Talley believes they’ll be up to the task. No one will be rooting for them more fervently and vociferously than him.

“If they win it all and do something we couldn’t do, I’ll tip my cap to them and be on the first flight to Buffalo to take part in that victory parade to end all victory parades,’’ he said. “I’ll be happy for them, happy for us alumni, and, most of all, happy for the people of Buffalo. They’ve had to endure so many close calls. They deserve this.”

A happy ending, after so many sad ones. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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