When the Bills take the field this Sunday at the L.A. Coliseum, they’ll be playing for the first three-game winning streak of the Rex Ryan Era. They’ll also be playing for only the eighth three-game winning streak of the last 16 years.
To put that in perspective, only the Browns (6) have fewer stretches of three straight wins than Buffalo’s seven. The Steelers, in that same time frame, have put together a league-high 24. The Rams, who haven’t put together a winning season since Marc Bulger was handing off to Marshall Faulk, have 11 (including one they’ll be putting on the line against the Bills).
Before we speculate on the Bills’ chances to add to that total, let’s take a look back at what happened the last few times the Bills made it at least three games without a loss.
Streak 1: October 29 to November 19, 2000 (4 wins)
What Happened: Back before we knew what was in store for the years to come, the Bills actually were primed to return to the playoffs in 2000. A four-game stretch with wins over the Jets, Patriots, Bears, and Chiefs had the Bills at 7-4 and ready to return to the postseason.
What Happened Next: Four-straight wins gave way to blowout losses at the Buccaneers and Colts, and sandwiched between them was a blowout loss at home to the Dolphins. Following that came an overtime loss to the Patriots, where the game-winner was kicked by then fifth-year veteran Adam Vinatieri. A Week 17 shellacking of the Seahawks gave the Bills an 8-8 record, well outside of a playoff position.
What Went Wrong: The lanky California kid whose disdain for the city he played in was outmatched only by his inability to stay in a game. It’s not often that a quarterback plays 11 games and manages to finish second on his team in pass attempts, but the Bills managed to find a way to give Doug Flutie that honor, largely by insisting that Rob Johnson was starting quarterback material. Spoiler alert: he wasn’t. Of course, the front office did give up the ninth overall pick for the guy, so I suppose it was an effort that had to be made.
Streak 2: October 13 to October 27, 2002 (3 games)
What Happened: Drew Bledsoe Mania was in full effect in the fall of ‘02. Bledsoe had just thrown for a team-record 463 yards in an overtime win against the Vikings. A three-game romp against the Texans, Dolphins, and Lions had the Bills at 5-3, and Bledsoe was on pace for a clean 5,000 passing yards (this was before that became a somewhat regular occurrence in the NFL).
What Happened Next: Once again, a winning streak of three games was followed by a losing streak of three games. A blowout loss to the Patriots, followed by road losses after the bye to the Chiefs and Jets, set the team on their way to an 8-8 finish. It was a massive improvement from their 3-13 campaign a year earlier, but not enough to work their way into the 9-7 logjam at the top of the division.
What Went Wrong: As good as the offense was that year, the defense was just as bad. They held their opponent under 17 points in a game just twice all season, and once the offense started to sputter things went south in a hurry. If they had managed just a touch more offense in a 17-16 loss to the Chiefs and any offense at all in a 10-0 loss to the Packers, they would have been playoff bound.
Streak 3: December 29, 2002 to September 14, 2003 (3 games)
I’m just going to gloss over this one, since it’s the only one that spanned multiple seasons. The Bills closed their 2002 campaign with a win over the Bengals before opening 2003 with wins over the Patriots (the infamous Lawyer Milloy, Pat Washington TD game) and Jaguars. They went 4-10 the rest of the way, highlighted by a win over the Redskins in Bruce Smith’s return to Buffalo.
Streak 4: November 21 to December 26, 2004 (6 games)
What Happened: The most successful stretch of the drought saw the Bills go from also-rans to contenders in the blink of an eye. They did that with one of the most dominant six-game stretches in history. The Bills never scored less than 33 points in a game, and only once allowed more than 17. Three of the wins were by at least 29 points. They forced 27 (!) turnovers, including at least four in each of the last four games. They were the most dangerous team in football and entirely ready to make a deep postseason run.
What Happened Next: You know what happened next.
What Went Wrong: I don’t want to talk about it, and neither do you. Let’s move on.
Streak 5: October 21 to November 11, 2007 (4 games)
What Happened: The second year of the Dick Jauron Era saw the Bills stumble to an 0-3 start and a 1-4 record at the bye. A series of close wins over the Ravens, Jets, Bengals, and Dolphins, however, game the Bills new life and a 5-4 record. Trent Edwards wasn’t exactly taking the NFL by storm, but a stout defense led by Aaron Schobel and Terrence McGee allowed their quarterback to play the mistake-free football that would become his trademark, almost to a damning extent.
What Happened Next: The Bills were flexed to a Sunday Night Football appearance against the Patriots, and a pregame speech from Kevin Everett (whose career-ending spine injury came in the season opener) was played to pump up the crowd. They promptly lost to the soon-to-be-undefeated Patriots, 56-10, and quietly went back to playing mediocre football, finishing with the second of Jauron’s three straight 7-9 finishes.
What Went Wrong: The Bills went all-in on Edwards, and were forced to deal with the resultant growing pains. He offered the same low-volume passing totals that we’ve come to expect out of Tyrod Taylor without any of the mobility or big-play flash, and as a result, the only two wins the Bills managed for the rest of the year came against Washington (in their first game following the death of Sean Taylor) and the Dolphins (who won one game that season). The defense played fairly well after being embarrassed on national television, but it wasn’t enough.
Streak 6: September 7 to September 28, 2008 (4 games)
What Happened: There was a point in time where Edwards’ refusal to throw the ball more than five yards down the field was endearing. It helped that the team’s opponents hadn’t quite caught on to his deficiencies as a passer, allowing him to zip passes to Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson, Josh Reed, and Lee Evans while letting them do the heavy lifting. It worked long enough to allow the Bills to open the season with wins against the Seahawks, Jaguars, Raiders, and Rams, giving the Bills a 4-0 record and their best start since 1992.
What Happened Next: Edwards suffered a concussion in the team’s first loss to the Cardinals, but came back to play well against the Chargers, giving the Bills a 5-1 record and earning Jauron a nice contract extension. The Bills proceeded to close out the year at 2-8, giving them a third straight 7-9 finish. The offense scored three or fewer points three times over the final five games.
What Went Wrong: Defenses clued in on how to defend Edwards, and the deep ball he needed to develop to stay alive in the NFL never came. Aside from a bizarre 54-31 victory over the Chiefs where Edwards threw two touchdowns and ran for two more (something that’s only happened five times since then), the offense failed to launch, and it seems like whenever it did the defense took a nose dive. In the three games where the Bills managed a field goal or less, the defense didn’t allow more than 16 points. In the four games where the Bills topped 20 points, the defense didn’t give up fewer than 23.
Streak 7: September 11 to September 25, 2011 (3 games)
What Happened: First, there was Bledsoe. Then came Edwards. After him, it was Ryan Fitzpatrick’s turn to try and become the Bills’ savior at the quarterback position. Fitzpatrick took the league by storm for the first three games of the season, throwing a combined nine touchdowns in a blowout win over the Chiefs and comeback squeakers over the Raiders and Patriots. The Pats game, where the Bills fell behind 21-0 before intercepting Tom Brady four times and coming back for a 34-31 victory, was one of the high points of the drought. With the win, the Bills became the first team to ever post consecutive comebacks of 18 or more points.
What Happened Next: After two straight comebacks, the Bills lost a fourth-quarter lead in Cincinnati. In fact, during the team’s 5-2 start in 2011, they only lost on field goals in the final two minutes (to the Bengals and Giants). Fitzpatrick received a contract extension and followed it up with a blowout win over the Redskins in Toronto (the Bills’ only win of that series). They proceeded to lose all but one of their remaining nine games, continuing the recurring theme of a hot start followed by a terrible finish. Fitzpatrick continued with the Bills for another season and bounced around the league before finding a home with the Jets, where he became the single most overrated player in the NFL before throwing nine interceptions in the last two games.
If it seems like I spent a lot of time focusing on the quarterbacks, there’s a reason for that. Inconsistent quarterback play has been the hallmark of the last 16 seasons, and it’s the single biggest reason the Bills haven’t been to the playoffs since the days of dial-up modems and CD players. Perhaps things will change going forward with Tyrod Taylor and run-heavy approach, but until I see differently I’ll keep this list in mind.