During the seemingly endless stretch of time between the climax of Super Bowl LVI and the start of the 2022 NFL season, the Buffalo Bills got more hype than a Marvel movie — and were essentially cast as superheroes.
Fans, gamblers and media members alike ordained the Bills as the team to beat, and there was at least some logic behind the sentiment. After all, they’d looked so formidable in last season’s playoffs before suffering a heartbreaking defeat to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round. Then Buffalo responded by signing future Hall of Fame pass rusher Von Miller in free agency, and general manager Brandon Beane followed that up with another promising draft.
Before we knew it, a franchise that has never won a Super Bowl was resoundingly favored to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Arizona next February.
It turns out that the hype may, in fact, have been off base.
Judging from the season’s first two games, the Bills are better than advertised. And their superiority has been about as subtle as an inebriated fan crashing through a plastic folding table outside Highmark Stadium.
Buffalo began by flying west and pummeling the defending Super Bowl champion Rams 31-10 in the Thursday night opener. On Monday, the Bills followed that up at home with a 41-7 beatdown of the Tennessee Titans — the AFC’s top-seeded team in last season’s playoffs — in a game that could have been called off before the end of the third quarter.
That’s Bills 72, Opponents 17, and zero sign of abatement on the horizon.
It can be argued that the Rams were suffering from a Super Bowl hangover and that the Titans, in the wake of last season’s playoff flameout against the Cincinnati Bengals and the A.J. Brown trade, are a team on the decline. Yet if the Bills continue to embarrass opponents, rationalizations such as these will start to become laughable. Collectively, they look a lot like their star quarterback, Josh Allen, when he breaks containment: hyper-talented, hard to contain and driven to dominate anyone in their path.
Buffalo’s early season schedule remains tough on paper, beginning with Sunday’s short-week road game against the 2-0 Miami Dolphins. After facing the Ravens (in Baltimore) and the Pittsburgh Steelers at home, the Bills will travel to Kansas City for a resumption of their budding rivalry with the Chiefs. After a bye week, they’ll face Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in Orchard Park.
If they come out of that stretch unscathed, the Bills can look forward to answering questions about whether they can go undefeated. In the meantime, I’ll try to resist the compulsion to crown them prematurely, even though the visual evidence is highly compelling.
My first regular beat as a professional journalist was covering the 1989 San Francisco 49ers, who were trying to repeat as champions — and capture their fourth title in nine seasons. Even as they rolled to a 9-1 start, en route to a 14-2 regular season, I received weekly rejections of their awesomeness from a scarily passionate source.
After each victory, sublime safety Ronnie Lott — the most fearsome hitter of his generation — would stand at his locker after the rest of the room had emptied and smack us with a dose of healthy perspective.
“Great teams don’t become great until late November and December,” Lott would preach. “Until then everyone is working it out, and it’s just about finding a way to win a game.”
Let the record show that Lott, Joe Montana and friends did in fact win another championship that year, beating the Minnesota Vikings by 28 points in the divisional round, the Rams by 27 in the NFC championship game and the Denver Broncos by 45 in the Super Bowl. Yeah, they were great.
The next season, San Francisco went for the three-peat and began by winning its first 10 games. And after each one of them, Lott would do his best to douse our enthusiasm. “Great teams don’t become great until late November and December,” he’d say again.
I can still hear those words as I type these paragraphs. I know that Lott was right then (and for what it’s worth, those 1990 Niners went 14-2 and lost a heartbreaking NFC championship game to the New York Giants), and I know that it’s absurd to crown the Bills after watching them play twice.
Surely, no matter how this plays out, there will be ugly games that put their mettle to the test. An NFL season is never smooth. All you have to do is flash back to last November when Buffalo, 5-2 at the time, lost a 9-6 game to the Urban-challenged Jaguars, on a Sunday when they didn’t even have the best Josh Allen on the field.
As with any team, injuries could mess up everything. And, of course, there’s the danger that the Bills — after hearing about their own greatness for months and months — are peaking too early. Then again, I just watched them dismantle the Titans so egregiously, it looked like they could have won 70-7, had they been so inclined.
We’ll see if they can sustain this level of play, or possibly exceed it.
As of now, however, it appears the Bills were under-hyped.
I should probably spin this in a positive fashion and talk about all the great comebacks (and near-comebacks) that took place on Sunday, but let’s be real: There was some serious gagging going on in Week 2.
Incomprehensibly, the Ravens blew a 35-14 lead to the Dolphins at home, losing 42-38 when Tua Tagovailoa threw his sixth touchdown pass and fourth in the fourth quarter — no, that’s not a misprint — with 14 seconds remaining.
It was the first time in 12 years that a team has come back from a 21-point-or-larger deficit in the fourth quarter. Before then, since 2011, teams trailing by that much and that late had been 0-711. (That whole 7-Eleven thing breaks down, I guess, when guys like Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle are … wait for it … always open.)
The Cleveland Browns should feel even sicker about losing a game to the New York Jets that they could have put away with ease. The unraveling began after the two-minute warning, when running back Nick Chubb scored a 12-yard touchdown to put Cleveland up 30-17 with 1:55 remaining. Had Chubb simply run out of bounds or stopped short of the goal line, the Browns could have killed the clock with kneel downs. Having given the Jets the faintest shred of hope, the Browns proceeded to implode.
First, a missed extra point. Then, a secondary that inexplicably allowed Jets receiver Corey Davis to slip many, many yards behind it, setting up Joe Flacco’s 66-yard touchdown pass (and evoking memories of Flacco’s 70-yard TD pass to Jacoby Jones in the 2012 playoffs). After Amari Cooper and friends failed to recover an onside kick, Flacco engineered another touchdown drive, this time connecting with Garrett Wilson on a 15-yarder with 22 seconds to go.
One Greg Zuerlein PAT later, the Browns were toast, and an idiotic fan was bottle-throwing mad. And that guy, arguably, wasn’t even the worst-behaved fan of the day; the dunce at Allegiant Stadium who hit Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray in the face after Arizona’s 29-23 overtime victory over the Las Vegas Raiders may have surpassed him.
It was a rough Sunday for the Silver and Black, who held a 20-0 advantage at halftime and managed to blow the biggest lead in franchise history. It was 23-7 Raiders in the fourth quarter when Murray began doing Murray-like things, and it was a sight to behold.
First, after a Darrel Williams touchdown run with 8:13 to go, Murray lined up for a 2-point conversion, dropped back and began eluding tacklers for an entire hand-washing session in the time of COVID-19 before finally outracing the Raiders to the end zone. It was a play that lasted 20.8 seconds, eclipsed perhaps only by Paul Crewe’s game-winning cutback run in “The Longest Yard.”
And Murray’s next 2-point conversion, a WTF? throw to A.J. Green which tied the game with no time remaining in regulation, was even more spectacular.
The only consolation for Raiders owner Mark Davis was that instead of staying in Vegas to witness the meltdown, he’d traveled to Connecticut, where he watched his Aces capture the WNBA championship.
Amazingly, the Rams — until a dramatic, end-zone interception by Jalen Ramsey with 1:07 remaining — were on the verge of the most dumbfounding collapse of all. At home against Atlanta, the Rams came perilously close to pulling a Reverse Falcons, surrendering a 28-3 lead (yes, that score again) before hanging on to win 31-27.
Take heart, Arthur Smith: After that inspired effort, maybe your team can move up to 44th in the rankings.
U mad, bro?
Speaking of epic near-comebacks, I felt so good about Tom Brady punctuating his incredible career by spurring an outrageous Bucs rally from the brink during last January’s playoffs. If that was going to be it for the seven-time Super Bowl winner — and for 40 days, it looked like it would be — hey, it was a pretty sweet swan song.
Obviously, it’s not about me, and Brady has earned the right to end his career on his own terms. There’s a long season ahead, but right now, the feel-good vibes are in short supply.
In Sunday’s 20-10 victory over the Saints, Brady seemed especially agitated. He slammed a tablet to the ground, chucked a helmet and helped provoke a brawl (before deftly backing away as the violence commenced).
Last week, in the debut of this column, we delved into the opening-game nightmare experienced by new Denver Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett.
In his first game at Empower Field at Mile High, the anxiety dream continued. Fans not only booed the Broncos at times, but they also began counting down the play clock when Denver had the ball, in response to the offense’s struggles to snap the ball in a timely fashion. The Broncos had 13 penalties and continued to struggle in the red zone, and Russell Wilson completed only six of his first 20 passes (including an interception).
Blessedly for Hackett, his team pulled out a 16-9 victory over the Texans to even its record at 1-1. The bad news? The 49ers and their ferocious defense are coming to town for a nationally televised Sunday night game, and everyone will be scrutinizing the coach’s time-management process and game-management decisions.
For the record, Hackett is still projecting the right demeanor in his public comments. Asked after the game about the salty reception from the home fans, Hackett replied, “I would boo myself.”
When the best player in the league credits a South American psychoactive psychedelic for his peace of mind, the smart play by the Powers That Be is to roll with it. Sure enough, Rodgers faced no NFL discipline for sharing his hallucinogenic experiences.
However, the locker room has its own way of regulating, and the Packers quarterback got a taste of that Sunday night at Lambeau Field when he threw a touchdown to Allen Lazard and an ayahuasca-themed end-zone celebration ensued.
Well played — though for realism, some pantomimed vomiting might have been a nice touch.
Either way, we’ve come a long, long way since Randy Moss’s end-zone moon.