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On losing and the unpredictable nature of the NFL

New England’s Thursday night loss once again proves that anything is possible in sports

If the collective mood of Buffalo Bills fans could be summed up in an album title, the 1995 classic Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness comes to mind as a suitable metaphor. Despite all of our rage, we’re still just stuck in this cage of fandom and disappointment year in and year out, hoping that something will change.

After the team parted ways with Sammy Watkins, Ronald Darby, and essentially anyone else associated with previous regimes, the fan base has taken an early turn for the dour. Recent twitter polls suggest that the team’s fans are consistently in the bottom-three of the league in terms of negativity. It seems that most fans, myself included, began to see failure this season as inevitable. Even with a clearly-tanking New York Jets team in the division, as well as another in the Miami Dolphins whose starting quarterback is lost for the year, the reality of playing in a division with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots makes the season’s result a foregone conclusion in the minds of many: everyone outside of Massachusetts is playing for second place.

Going into Thursday night’s season-opener between the Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs, we posed a question via Twitter: Are you rooting for New England to win so Buffalo’s draft pick acquired from Kansas City is higher, or are you rooting for Kansas City to win so that Buffalo has a better shot at winning the division. In September, the answer should be clear. You play to win the game. Talking about draft position already is a depressing signal, yet 70% of poll respondents hoped that New England won so that Buffalo’s pick would improve. This is another indicator of the negativity pervasive in the fan base, and it isn’t our fault. After 17 years of waiting for next year, it’s hard to be excited for a roster that has been stripped of so many parts.

Going into the opening night’s game, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find many people who would predict a Kansas City victory. If someone predicted that the Chiefs would drop 42 points on the defending champs while limiting Tom Brady to a 44% completion rate and no touchdowns, you’d have thought them to be crazy. If that same person predicted that Alex Smith, the same Alex Smith that Patrick Mahomes was drafted to replace, would throw for 368 and 4 touchdowns while completing 80% of his passes, you’d have recommended that person be committed.

But that’s the beauty of sports—it constantly reinforces the fact that no matter how much we think we know, we really know absolutely nothing.

I could tell you all the reasons why I think Buffalo will go 5-11. I could write about Tyrod Taylor’s weaknesses, LeSean McCoy’s age and advanced mileage, and Sean McDermott’s inability to harness a penalty problem that’s now spanned three coaching regimes. I could do the opposite, too, and tell you that the Bills will win 10 games for the first time since the last millennium, since the new defense actually fits the team’s personnel, the offensive skill position players are healthy, and it appears that we might finally see an offense that emphasizes one of its best players, Charles Clay. Whichever prediction I made, some people would agree and others would call me insane. The great part is that we just have no idea what’s going to come. I went to bed when the Patriots were trailing 28-27. I assumed that I would wake up this morning to news that they had won the game 35-28. Most everyone watching assumed that the defending champs would just step up and do what they were expected to do, which was defeat a good team in Foxboro, just like they’ve done so many times over the last 16 years.

That exact script had been followed so many times before that we forgot one important thing: there is no script. Competitive athletics isn’t just reality TV, but it’s real reality TV. Bring out whichever cliche you want—any given Sunday, that’s why they play the games—and that’s what the Chiefs showed. Cliches become cliches because there is a bit of truth to them. Especially in the middle of a run of dominance like the one we’ve witnessed in New England, that’s easy to forget sometimes.

So sure, the Bills might win 5 games. They might win 7. They might win 11. But whatever may come, Thursday night’s game served as a great reminder why we all love to follow sports so much. As fun as it is to be right, there are some surprises that are worthwhile. In a world where “spoilers” happen all the time, it’s nice to witness a different kind of spoiler—the one that makes a run at a perfect season impossible.

The Patriots may go 15-1. They still may win the division, and the conference, and the entire league yet again. They may embarrass our Bills, and the Bills may prove to be worthy competitors for them. We don’t know, and I like it that way.

Sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride, because as we have already been reminded in Week 1, we have no idea what’s yet to come.