Obliterating futility within the throes of a pandemic
There were more than a wagonload of lean times during the Buffalo Bills’ 17-year playoff drought—like the Monday Night Football collapse against the Dallas Cowboys, the 6-3 setback to the Cleveland Browns and the 56-10 humiliation at the hands of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick on Sunday Night Football. Still, during the 14 years I’ve had season tickets, my friends and I always envisioned a time when Buffalo would be playing meaningful games in January.
So, hope was high entering the 2020 season, especially with the Bills having made the playoffs in two of the last three seasons under head coach Sean McDermott. Add in trading for wide receiver Stefon Diggs, importing free agents like Quinton Jefferson, Mario Addison and Vernon Butler and drafting rookies Gabriel Davis, Zack Moss, A.J. Epenesa, and Tyler Bass—and things just felt different than they had in ages.
Then, as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened and the news came out that hundreds of thousands of people were dying from the novel coronavirus, suddenly, football wasn’t as important as it used to be for many. Given the gravity of the pandemic, it was inevitable when, earlier this summer, the Bills announced all home games would be played before empty stadiums.
I knew how talented the team was and how much of a welcome distraction from real life it would be to have home football games in Western New York. So, when the time came for season-ticket holders to either opt in or opt out of the 2020 season, I took a chance and opted the four of us in on the off chance that Governor Cuomo and New York State would allow fans back into New Era Field—whoops, Bills Stadium, (Yes, another element that changed between now and the last home game I attended on Dec. 29, 2019.)
Behind a record-setting season from quarterback Josh Allen, wide receiver Stefon Diggs, and the revamped offense, the Bills went on to have their best regular season since 1991. The accolades began to flow relatively early in the season for a team that ended up winning 13 games, claimed their first AFC East title since 1995 and secured the No. 2 seed for the playoffs.
It might be chilly
The prize for patient Bills fans who opted in: a chance to see Buffalo play a home playoff game, in January of course. But there was a caveat: with only 6,700 fans allowed in for the games, season-ticket holders could only purchase tickets to one playoff game.
While I was confident in Buffalo’s ability to win a Wild Card game, I didn’t want to miss out on this occasion, so instead of risking it and waiting for my chance at divisional round tickets, I was fortunate to be able to secure a pair of tickets to the game against the Indianapolis Colts. Not the four tickets I normally buy mind you, as pods of four sold out almost instantly on Dec. 31, 2020 for Buffalo’s first home playoff game in 24 years.
The process was a nerve-wracking experience. When my time came to enter the Ticketmaster queue, I nervously waited as fans ahead of me snapped up their tickets, not knowing how many (if any) would be available when it was my turn in the virtual line. When, after what seemed like an eternity but was really only a 15-minute wait, I gladly snapped up two tickets in Section 121, close enough to my normal seats in Section 123. In fact, a buddy from 123 had done the same thing and was actually in our row in 121, which was another sign of normalcy during these abnormal times. But anyway...
I felt grateful that, during the worst pandemic in modern history, for at least a few hours on a Saturday in Western New York, my buddy Patrick and I would be at Bills Stadium, cheering on our beloved Bills with 6,700 fellow members of #BillsMafia.
The safety protocols the Bills and the state enacted for the Wild Card game went smoothly. After purchasing our tickets on January 1 (a great way to usher in the new year, mind you), we scheduled our COVID-19 tests at Bills Stadium and shuffled off to Orchard Park. Not knowing what to expect, we departed from Rochester early, accounting for any delays or backlog among the Bills faithful being tested. When we arrived to the stadium, everything was running smoothly.
The Bills had set up 30 bays in the parking lot, and the lines moved pretty quickly. When it was our turn, a nice woman approached my window, asked for my driver’s license and proof of my test appointment, then administered the swab up my left nostril. The whole process took less than five minutes, from pulling into the stadium lot until the nasal test had been conducted.
I was stunned at the rapidity of the result. We were told it would take up to 48 hours before the results were known, but fewer than 15 hours later, my nerves were calmed when I received the negative test result via email.
With that hurdle cleared—and let me emphasize how happy I was that the Bills both mandated their fans test negative while insisting on testing at the Bills’ facility—we turned our attention to game day.
Playoffs, here we come!
For a usual home game during a normal season, we’ll depart from Rochester around 8 a.m., pull into one of the satellite lots and set up our tailgate, but (for obvious reasons) tailgating was strictly forbidden. So instead, knowing the stadium lots didn’t open until 10:30 a.m., we stopped by our local Wegmans, picked up subs, chips, and beer and shuffled off to Buffalo.
Shortly after 11 a.m., we pulled into the conglomerate of lots 5, 6, and 7 at the stadium, joined by plenty of Bills revelers, and settled into our front-row spot. It was the closest to my seats that we’ve ever parked, which was great for our car-based tailgate, but problematic for exiting the stadium (more on that in a bit).
Knowing we had a set time to enter the stadium for the first of our two security checkpoints, we settled in for our pre-game feast. The chilly air was the perfect memory jog to so many previous game days—and our subs and seasonal sixers of bock and vanilla porter certainly got us right back in the swing of a typical game day. We left the car at 12:35 p.m. for our 12:45 p.m. entry. We were surprised to see the lot had become a ghost town by the time we left for our seats.
The two checkpoints went by without incident—at the first one you had to show proof of your negative COVID-19 test result along with your government-issued ID, and the second was your run-of-the-mill metal detector and ticket check—and we made our way to our end zone seats, arriving ten minutes before kickoff.
We both were curious how the Bills were going to handle spreading out 6,700 fans in a stadium built to hold more than 73,000 people. The two rows immediately behind us and in front of us were mostly vacant, while the nearest fans were a few seats down from us in our row, though one drunken fan slowly kept creeping his way towards our seats as the game progressed.
I’m not sure how the whole experience came off to those watching the game on television, but I feel the Bills should be lauded for how they handled allowing fans into the stands for the playoff game. The only time it got a little tight was when we were in line for stadium beers, but we took it upon ourselves to practice social distancing and never felt unsafe in the stadium.
Security was on top of their game, too, walking around sections to make sure fans had their masks on. Whenever a fan was spotted without a mask, they were approached by a security member. Everything went smoothly from our perspective, outside of the palpitations we endured during the game.
All eyes on the field...
As for the game itself, it was worth the wait to see Buffalo win its first playoff game in 25 years. On an unusually sunny Saturday afternoon, with Bills faithful sporting jerseys of current Bills like Josh Allen, Tre’Davious White, Stefon Diggs along with past Bills Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Steve Tasker and even...J.P. Losman (really? The first home playoff game in a quarter century and you break out a Losman jersey? What was that fan thinking?), the few but mighty fans in attendance were loud throughout the game, yelling as loud as they could while banging on the seats in front of them. We yelled so loud that, as of Monday evening, my voice is still quite hoarse—and so worth it!
We had a birds-eye view of Allen’s shotput of a touchdown pass to Dawson Knox (brilliant call to throw when the running lanes were denied for Allen), and the Colts’ inexplicable decision to eschew a field goal and go for it on fourth down late in the first half, when a wide-open Michael Pittman Jr. couldn’t corral a pass from Philip Rivers.
In a half where the Bills felt like they should be trailing 24-7, we took great joy watching Allen direct a ten-play, 96-yard drive (the longest scoring drive in the franchise’s playoff history), including a pair of darts to rookie Gabe Davis, who made two terrific toe-dragging catches to keep the drive going. When Allen capped the march with a five-yard TD scamper, we felt fortunate the team took a 14-10 lead into halftime.
Following a field goal from Bass and a double-doink from rookie Rodrigo Blankenship on a chip-shot 33-yard field goal, we breathed a little easier when Allen orchestrated a nine-play, 77-yard drive, capped by a 35-yard dime to Diggs in the corner of the end zone to give the Bills a 24-10 lead.
But we knew it wasn’t going to be a cakewalk for the Bills. Rivers, who was surprisingly not under duress the entire game, easily moved the Colts downfield to a pair of touchdown drives in-between an impressive 54-yard field goal by Bass, and Indy clawed within 27-24 with more than six minutes to go.
Those final six minutes and 13 seconds were some of the most stressful I’ve ever experienced. While this year’s team has accomplished so much, as a lifelong Bills fan you’re always conditioned to expect the worst, which nearly happened on that disastrous first-down play. You know the play. With the Bills on the move, Allen was sacked and fumbled. But thankfully, tackle Daryl Williams was in the right place at the right time and fell on the loose ball, preventing the Colts from facing a short field needing only a field goal to force overtime.
After Rivers converted one fourth down, we all thought the game was over when Matt Milano and Jordan Poyer ripped the ball free from Zach Pascal on a 4th-and-10 and White recovered the fumble. Each time the replay was shown on the video board, we all had the same response: fumble. But somehow, despite what we all felt was clear video evidence showing Pascal get up on his own and continue with his forward progress before fumbling, the referees of course ruled him down by contact.
Our hearts pulsating, we had to endure four more passes from Rivers, including a Hail Mary attempt with four seconds to go. Thankfully, Rivers doesn’t possess the strongest arm at this stage in his career. Even better, Micah Hyde made a volleyball spike of the last-ditch pass, and euphoria took hold of Bills Stadium.
The Bills had finally won a playoff game, snapping their six-game postseason losing streak, and we saw Allen completely atone for the miscues from last year’s Wild Card loss to the Houston Texans. We had witnessed Bills history, and there were plenty of glove-fives exchanged between the fans, who had waited so long for this moment.
A great day comes to a close
An exhilarating win made the 30-minute post-game wait in the parking lot more tolerable, since the Bills had won and there were still cold beers to enjoy as part of our victory celebration (Playoff football weather in Orchard Park is kind to refrigeration needs.)
Hopefully, with the plan provided by the Bills and the state, Saturday’s Wild Card triumph will serve as a blueprint for safely re-opening New York State and slowly allow fans back into events like live sports, concerts, and more.
I just wish the Bills would let me back for the divisional round. If anyone has a spare ticket and needs a good-luck charm, let me know!