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Buffalo Bills, Syracuse Orange have football fans jumping for joy

As we learned again Sunday in Kansas City, no hurdle appears too high for Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills. In a rematch of the two best quarterbacks on the planet, Air Allen leaped over yet another would-be tackler on his way to throwing a late touchdown pass that enabled the Bills to knock off the Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs, 24-20, at Arrowhead Stadium.

And just like that, the agony of “13 Seconds” seems so long ago. The squandering of an all-but certain victory against Kansas City with that little time remaining on the clock last January clearly hasn’t had any lingering effects on a Bills team that has taken a commanding two-game lead on the Chiefs in the battle for AFC supremacy.

Yes, there’s still 65 percent of the season to be played and there’s always the great unknown of injuries, bad calls, and bizarre bounces by that oblong ball, but the 5-1 Bills are sitting pretty heading into their bye week. Their remaining schedule is much less demanding than the Chiefs. So, I don’t believe it’s a leap of faith to predict that the AFC’s road to the Super Bowl will be going through Buffalo.

The Bills already have weathered a rash of injuries and have gotten a bunch of starters back. And when they return to action two Sundays from now to host a beaten-down Green Bay Packers team at Highmark Stadium, they’ll have All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White and his surgically repaired knee in the lineup for the first time since last November. So, there’s an excellent chance they’ll widen their conference lead, meaning they won’t have to return to Arrowhead for a fifth time in three years.What more can we say about Allen? We’re running out of superlatives. He outdueled Mahomes Sunday, becoming the first QB to hand the Kansas City phenom two losses on his home turf. With 17 touchdown passes and just four picks, the otherworldly quarterback also known as Allen the Alien is on pace to pass for 5,610 yards and become the first Bill to win a league MVP award since Thurman Thomas in 1991.

Allen’s signature move – leaping over tacklers the way Michael Air Jordan once soared over defenders on his way to dunking basketballs – has become fodder for highlight clips and creative memes. It’s a reflection of Air Allen’s athleticism and his competitive desire to do whatever it takes to win. His hurdle over Chiefs safety Justin Reid Sunday put the finishing touches on a 16-yard run that set up a laser-beam touchdown toss to Dawson Knox with 64 seconds remaining.

Allen’s physical play inspires his teammates and goes viral, even attracting internet praise from the likes of LeBron James, who’s a huge Josh Allen fan. But it also causes the hearts of Bills Mafia members and head coach Sean McDermott to skip a few beats. Allen is Buffalo’s most indispensable player, and you hold your breath that his high-risk aerial attacks don’t result in injury. It’s a difficult balancing act because his derring-do is part of what makes Allen great, but also part of what makes him vulnerable to hard hits and crash landings.

The other notable thing about Sunday’s win was the continued superb play of the defense – a defense that, as mentioned, hasn’t been at full strength. To hold a Mahomes-quarterbacked offense to 20 points in Arrowhead is quite the accomplishment. Kudos to rookie cornerback Kaiir Elam, who picked off Mahomes in the end zone, and fifth-year cornerback Taron Johnson, who clinched the victory with an interception with 51 seconds to go.

Give credit, too, to Von Miller. Bills General Manager Brandon Beane spent big bucks to lure the future Hall-of-Fame pass rusher away from the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams, and Miller is paying dividends, with five sacks in six games, including two in crucial moments of Sunday’s game. He’s been called the “Closer” for his ability to close out games. Against the Chiefs, he did his best impression of New York Yankees Hall of Fame relief pitcher Mariano Rivera in his prime.

“That’s why I’m here,’’ Miller said of his game-saving plays. “It’s my job description.”

***

Speaking of soaring starts and expectations, how about the Syracuse Orange? The ’Cuse is 6-0 after beating North Carolina State, 24-9, Saturday at the sold-out and loud JMA Dome. While the Bills were expected to be good, Syracuse was not, so that’s added to the excitement surrounding this team. The Orange men are ranked 14th in this week’s national polls and already are bowl eligible.

Just how good a bowl they go to will be determined by how well they perform against the teeth of a demanding schedule, starting with Saturday’s visit to “Death Valley” to play unbeaten and fifth-ranked Clemson in South Carolina. Syracuse is a 13-point underdog but has a history of playing the two-time national champions tough. In the biggest win of Dino Babers’ coaching career, the Orange knocked off the Tigers in the Dome in 2017 and would have upset them again the following season on the road were it not for an illegal man downfield penalty as Syracuse was about to go in for the clinching score.

After this week, SU will face Notre Dame at home, visit Pitt, play Florida State at home, then finish on the road at Wake Forest and Boston College.

In addition to being good, the Orange have been entertaining, especially on offense, where quarterback Garrett Shrader is among the most improved players in America, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes, while tossing 12 touchdown passes and just three interceptions. He’s also rushed for 300 yards and five scores and has developed quite the connection with massive wide receiver Oronde Gadsden II, who is averaging 16.4 yards-per-catch and has scored five touchdowns.

Like Allen, Shrader is a big, physical, do-whatever-it-takes player who’s worked incredibly hard to become a better player and overcome doubters. He’s helped make the Orange good enough to dream.

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

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