Local Bills fans react to a crazy New Year's Eve
By David Yarger
Waking up on New Year's Day was different this year. It wasn't that dates changed to 2018, or drastic cold weather, it was being able to say six words that had been absent from a Western New Yorker's vocabulary for what seemed like an eternity: "The Bills are in the playoffs."
Quoting former Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora, "You kidding me? Playoffs? I just hope we win a game." Coming into the 2017 season, expectations for rookie head coach Sean McDermott and his Buffalo Bills were low. Trades of Sammy Watkins, Ronald Darby, Reggie Ragland and later Marcell Dareus made Bills fans wonder what was going on in Orchard Park.
McDermott kept praising three words, though: "Trust the process."
After starting off hot at 5-2, many fans began to "Bill-eve" again. A trade with McDermott's former team, the Carolina Panthers, for star wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin on Halloween sparked hope for Bills faithful. But, as the narrative seems to go in Buffalo, the team dropped.
The Bills laid an egg in New York versus the Jets on Thursday night football, then followed up with dud performances versus New Orleans, and, of course, the Peterman game versus the Los Angeles Chargers, where quarterback Tyrod Taylor was benched in favor of rookie Nathan Peterman.
The team went back to Taylor versus Kansas City and pulled off a stunner to get back in the win column.
Following a cheap shot and a loss to the Patriots, the Bills played in one of the craziest games, possibly in Buffalo history. A 13-7 win in a blizzard versus the Indianapolis Colts in overtime made fans jump for joy; throwing snowballs in the air as players made snow angels on the snow lathered field. It was a game where anyone who attended may have it as the most fun game they ever attended.
After defeating the Dolphins and losing to the Patriots again, the Bills found themselves in rare territory: playing in week 17 with playoffs possible.
The team needed help from the Cincinnati Bengals versus the Baltimore Ravens, but, most importantly, the Bills needed to beat the Dolphins again.
When the Bills score a rushing touchdown, most fans would think star running back LeSean McCoy scored. If you didn't watch, though, and looked at the box score the next day and seen Kyle Williams line: one rush, one yard and one touchdown, you'd probably scratch your head. Nevertheless, on the one-yard line, Taylor handed it off to Williams who rumbled in for his first career touchdown; a moment that will resonate with many Bills fans who have cherished Williams' effort over 12 seasons.
After the win, it was to the locker room to see if help would be received.
With 44 seconds remaining and the Bengals down by three, hopes were dwindling. On fourth and 12, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton stepped back and launched the ball down field to Tyler Boyd. The prayer was answered; Boyd caught it and walked into the end zone for a 49-yard score, breaking Ravens' fans hearts, sending Western New York into a frenzy and ending the dreaded 17-year playoff drought.
As seen in several videos, when the catch was made and ran in for a touchdown, Western New Yorkers were lifted and felt something that had been lost for a long time.
The Tribune recently talked to several Bills fans and residents around WNY to see just how much the playoff berth meant to them and their emotions as it all went down.
Joe D'Angelo of Niagara Falls had little faith in a Bengals comeback, but said, when it happened it was mayhem.
"Once Kyle Williams scored that touchdown, I knew something great was bound to happen, but fourth and 12 and you have Andy Dalton trying to convert; I thought to myself 'we're done, it was a good year, there's no possible way he can make this happen. When he threw it to Boyd and he scored, I literally ran around my house on the verge of tears. I couldn't believe my eyes. We have the best fans in the world, and I don't know what to do. It just surreal," D'Angelo said.
Kyle Jablonski of Buffalo was happy the Bills took care of business, but tried not to get too excited, noting how past situations haven't gone Buffalo's way.
"Watching the Bills come out on top in a game they absolutely needed was a sigh of relief due to how many times we've seen those slip through the cracks before. However, I tried to stay level headed knowing the Ravens had taken the lead shortly before. But, when Cincy picked up that first down, then you're sitting there watching the receiver running into the end zone; it was a split second of shock that it's finally happening, the Buffalo Bills are going to the playoffs. Then the excitement kicked in and it was time to celebrate," Jablonski said.
Jablonski added, looking at this year's roster compared to others, not many people would pick this roster to make the playoffs over others. He credited McDermott, saying the family culture he brought to the team changed the locker room atmosphere, and it was clearly seen after Williams' touchdown when he was mobbed by teammates in celebration.
Stu Blodgett of Niagara Falls said he doesn't remember much about the last playoff game the Bills played because of his age, but said he's looking forward to this one.
"When the playoffs were clinched, I had a feeling like nothing I've ever felt before," Blodgett said. "Being a Bills fan my entire life has come with a lot of heart- ache and heartbreak, but the feeling when Andy Dalton threw that touchdown meant more than any of that. It was a feeling of relief, and also pride that I would be able to watch my team compete in the playoffs for the first time since I was 4 years old."
Chelsea Quarmby of Niagara Falls had an interesting take, noting her fandom for both the Bills and Bengals.
"I couldn't even contain myself for the last quarter of each game and was constantly checking the Bengals score. I felt like my heart was going to explode for both teams. I don't think I've yelled louder at my TV in my life when the Bengals got that last touch- down. It was honestly the most amazing feeling knowing that my favorite team was helping my other favorite team and watching them root for the other," Quarmby said.
Justin LaDuca of Lewiston was able to see the growth of the Bills firsthand, as he interned with the team over the summer.
"Starting off the year as an intern ... I was able to be around the team and go to training camp. It was a great opportunity seeing how a pro football team was run from the inside and I had a feeling that maybe, just maybe, I would witness an amazing season, and I was right. It made watching the drought end even more special since I spent a majority of my year with this great organization," La- Duca said.
LaDuca added when the Bengals had won, he hugged his dad and cried tears of joy, like many Western New Yorkers, knowing the 17-year drought the two, and many others, endured was over.
Amy Chiarella of Niagara Falls had a familial connection with the win, as she connected past memories with new ones.
"I have been a football fan since I watched with my father as a child and teen. I have great memories of the Bills vs. Oilers 1993 comeback, when my dad and I listened to it on the radio and then my dad went out and bought T-shirts to celebrate the win. My 13-year-old son is a tried and true football fan and really loves the Bills. He has stuck by them and faithfully followed their seasons.
"For the last few weeks he has presented me with all the different scenarios of how the Bills could make it. To see his face and excitement when they made it was so emotional and watching all the videos of people celebrating all over the world made me tear up. It's truly exciting and unexpectedly thrilling," Chiarella said.
James Spanbauer of Niagara Falls added how he's endured the drought, noting he was 3 years old when the Bills last made the playof fs.
"I've been a huge Bills fan for as long as I can remember, so to finally be able to watch a playoff game is something I've been looking forward to for a very long time. We've been close a few times, but to see us finally get it done was awesome," Spanbauer said.
Other fans, such as Dan Wirth of the Town of Niagara and Duane Korpolinski of Niagara Falls, said it brought back memories of past Bills teams they had seen.
"It brings back the excitement I felt watching the Bills during their super bowl years," Wirth said.
"I remember the Jim Kelly days and going to the playoffs every year. It brought back a lot of memories and memories of going to playoff games. I hope we can keep the trend going forward," Korpolinski said.
Fans like Jordan Kinney and Matt Tavano of Niagara Falls chimed in their excitement, noting how long they've waited.
"It seems almost unreal that after 17 years the Bills are actually in the playoffs. That's most of my life (not being in the playoffs)," Kinney said.
Tavano said, "It was just a house full of us young Bills fans that never experienced a playoff berth, well one that we could remember since we were all about 2 years old when it last happened. My house erupted with pure joy and excitement. It was an amazing experience for all of us. That last drive you could probably hear us down the block we were so loud."
Jim Perez of Niagara Falls saw the victory as a turning point in Bills history; moving on from the Ralph Wilson era Bills, to a new age Bills with Owner Terry Pegula.
"Lost in the excitement was the fact that 14 to 15 years of the drought fell squarely on (Ralph) Wilson's shoulders and in a short period of time the Pegula's and their front office have shed the Wilson remnants, made the necessary personnel moves and have pushed the Bills a step further to continued success in the modern game of football.
"The win proved that new ownership is equipped to handle the rigors and demands of modern day football, which include spending money on a top-notch staff and scouting department. Qualifying for the playoffs after a short tenure of ownership showed me the Pegula's have the sense, the money, and the acumen to be modern football owners. It gave me a sense of relief that they have overcome the new owner learning curve and give me hope good things will continue to happen," Perez said.
In the end, the Bills could play one more game, or four more games this season, but what mattered most to Bills fans everywhere was getting that load off their back; ending the drought fans would groan about when seen on TV screens.
Bills fans also did an act of kindness in recognition of what the Bengals made possible. Dalton and his wife, Jordan, have a charity foundation that provides daily support, opportunities, resources and life-changing experiences to seriously ill and physically challenged children and their families in Cincinnati and Fort Worth, Texas. In a video tweeted on Wednesday, Dalton announced his foundation, since the game winning touchdown pass, had received almost $250,000 from over 10,000 donors. He thanked Bills fans and everyone who had donated earlier in the video.
One of the best parts, if not the best, was the outcry of support and love from Bills fans to the players. On New Year's Eve, with temperatures in single digits and wind chills in the negatives, Bills fans waited for the team plane to show their support. On a night where many sit around the TV and watch the ball drop ring in a new year, the Bills faithful decided to spend it waiting to show what years of heartbreak, agony and defeat the team cured.
The Bills play the Jacksonville Jaguars on the road at 1 p.m. Sunday. If the Bills win, they'll head to Foxborough to play the rival New England Patriots, at 8:15 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 13.