If you grew up in Southern Ontario in the 1980s and 90s, whether you wanted to or not, you were a Buffalo Bills fan.
All the sweet, sweet American television was beamed in from Buffalo. The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers. That’s how they hooked you. String you along with a little can’t-miss-TV on Thursday nights and then – bam! – hit you with high-proof football on Sunday.
In between, they’d roll out testers to draw you in. At the time, Buffalo had only two types of news bulletins: “winter storm imminent” and “someone vaguely connected to local football club has done something.”
Eventually, you Stockholm Syndromed yourself into believing that what happened to the Bills mattered to your life. Off the top of my head, I can still list more members of the 1990-93 Super Bowl-averse Bills than kids in my Grade 8 class.
Those teams broke your heart twice. First, wide right and all that followed. And second, when you had to explain to normal people why you cared.
Are you originally from Buffalo? No. Have you ever been to Buffalo? No. Could you turn right now and point out which direction Buffalo is in? No.
It made as much sense as rooting for a soccer team in Sweden because you listened to a lot of Abba.
When the Bills went off a competitive cliff at the turn of the century, they took it hard in Tonawanda and Cheektowaga and all the places that, according to WGRZ-TV, were constantly on fire throughout my childhood.
But up in Canada, it was a kind of detox. Now that the Bills were terrible, you no longer had to care about a team that had nothing to do with you geographically, culturally or historically.
Then Saturday happened.
If you’ve been clean of the Bills these past few years and trying to avoid the people, places and TV stations that remind you of the old days, I have bad news for you. The Bills are good again. Not just decentish or non-embarrassing, but honest-to-God good. Fully competent on both sides of the ball. Capable of taking a lead early and holding it late. Dotted with a few genuine stars who don’t appear to spend all their time in Buffalo trying to plot an escape route out of Buffalo.
On Saturday night, the Bills should have lost to the Baltimore Ravens.
Why? Because they’re the Bills. Their function in the great media ecosystem is to remind people who pay too much to live miserably in New York or Los Angeles why they do that. So that they don’t have to live like pashas in Buffalo (a criminally underrated town), but root miserably for the Bills.
The other thing going against them was the absolute certainty Bills fans – at least, the middle-aged face-painters they feature in network vignettes – felt about their chances. In a pregame segment, one delusional supporter straight-facedly said Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen is “headed to the Hall of Fame.”
Allen is 24 years old. He’s played three seasons in the NFL. He’s had one really good year. He’s won nothing of consequence.
If that’s the bar for career greatness, Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield can retire today because he’s already better than Joe Montana.
Another bad sign – the Bills let a bunch of people into the stadium to watch the game live.
I get it. I get it. The world has divided off into three kinds of people – those still scared of the novel coronavirus, those who think it’s a hoax and a great swath of people in between who know it’s dangerous but have stopped caring all that much. This third group won’t flout the rules, but they will treat governmental suggestions as just that – suggestions.
So when you tell them they probably shouldn’t go out in public together screaming at the top of their lungs, while also allowing them to do so, they’re going to take Door No. 2.
Medically, allowing 6,700 people into Saturday’s game seemed iffy (despite requiring a negative COVID-19 test). Karmically, it felt disastrous. But hey, not my circus, not my monkeys.
All in all, it felt like you’d seen this particular Bills movie before. Then they played.
Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson is the most exciting (if not the best) player in the NFL. The thinking here was Buffalo could not hope to contain him. It could only outscore him.
Instead, the Bills nullified Jackson, then chipped away at Baltimore’s defence until it cracked. They won 17-3. They’ll play Kansas City in next weekend’s AFC championship game.
For me, the game’s key moment was a small, inconsequential sequence in the second quarter. Buffalo had a sliver of a lead and had backed Baltimore’s offence up on its own goal line.
Again – there were 6,700 people in the stands, every one of them dressed up like they were attending a graduation ceremony at a clown college. Sixty-seven hundred is nothing. It’s as many people as used to watch third-tier rugby in Toronto. Bills Stadium can hold more than 70,000.
But those ragged few created so much noise that Baltimore false-started, twice, back to back. It was glorious. In terms of fan impact, Charge of the Light Brigade stuff.
That’s when the change began to come over me. That familiar jones for some cross-border Olive Garden and the calming tones of Irv Weinstein. I miss all bars, but now I especially miss Anchor Bar and the Old Pink. It’s just over there. A couple of hours down the QEW. So close and yet so COVID-y.
The Bills are back, and we are all in danger of getting hooked on the stuff again. So far, I feel fine. It’s not a problem. I can moderate. It’s true I am absolutely, completely sure the Bills will win it all this time. But other than that, I’m totally fine.