December 23, 2020

Jon Ralph’s Week 15 Recap

IT was NFL Sunday Buffalo-style and my Canadian father-in-law Bob was dressing for the mid-winter occasion. I had a pair of Levis on and he was pulling on a Snowmobile suit that gave him so much protection from the cold he looked like the Michelin Man.

“Are you sure you are going to be warm enough in that?” he scoffed.

Four hours and one border crossing later we finally arrived at what was then known as Ralph Wilson Stadium and even the blizzard that had hit wasn’t enough to cancel the game.

We passed the tailgating Bills fans going absolutely feral and arrived at our seats, which as a winter surprise had six inches of ice that needed to be chiselled off them before kickoff.

Suffice to say, the Levis were a complete fail.

So were Buffalo, one of the NFL’s most miserable franchises.

The highlight came when Peyton Manning threw a perfect touchdown pass in the driving snow on his single series before resting up for the playoffs only seven days ahead.

Yet the abiding memory from that incredible day is watching the fans stomp and cheer and hoot and holler as Buffalo finished another utterly forgettable season.

“Imagine what they would be like if Buffalo was actually any good,” I remarked to father-in-law Bob.

Fifteen years later, Buffalo isn’t just good, it is a legitimate chance to win the Super Bowl.

The team that lost four successive Super Bowls from 1990-1993 then endured the longest playoff drought of any of the four major American codes might not have its fans able to cheer on its exploits live given the COVID crisis. And yet the team that secured the AFC East Title for the first time in 25 years with a 48-19 demolition of Denver – is providing those fans with the perfect distraction in America’s winter of discontent.

As the playoff picture becomes clearer with two weeks remaining in a season that now looks increasingly likely to be completed, the usual NFL contenders are still in play.

Kansas City is 13-1 and on a nine-win streak and Green Bay is 11-3 with QB Aaron Rogers basking in a 40-4 touchdown-intercept ratio as wide receiver Davante Adams makes his claim as the best wide receiver in the NFL.

Yet the best stories in the NFL come from teams like Buffalo and Cleveland, historical underachievers that will still believe they are a chance to be in Tampa Bay for Super Bowl LV.

It’s hard to consider any team with Tom Brady as an underdog, but after reeling in a 17-point deficit against Matt Ryan’s Atlanta this week, Tampa Bay will still consider it is a chance to be at a home Super Bowl too. The Buccaneers are on the brink of their first playoffs since 2007, with a team boasting only a single Super Bowl victory and just 10 playoff berths in 44 years rewarded with instant payoff from the Brady acquisition.

But back to Buffalo.

Normally with seven weeks left ahead of the Super Bowl anyone heading off on an Insider Experience Super Bowl trip would still hoping to see the stars. Brady, Rogers, Mahomes, et al.

Having witnessed Philadelphia’s unlikely triumph over New England in 2018 the perfect Super Bowl to witness is a combination of both – an unlikely challenger and an iconic foe.

You get to see the stars that your mates back home know about but also cheer on that season’s rags-to-riches team and all the incredible storyline that accompanies them.

Buffalo has every chance to be that unlikely challenger given a team that has combined the staunch defence that is in the Buffalo DNA, a suddenly-accurate quarterback and a big off-season wide receiver acquisition.

As Buffalo showed once more in that thumping of Denver, when all of those ingredients combine the Bills are not only damned hard to beat, they are great to watch.

Quarterback Josh Allen always had a cannon of an arm plus the speed and size to extricate himself from the tightest of spots in the pocket. This year he has career-highs in passing touchdowns (30) and yards (over 4000) but increased his completion percentage by a remarkable 10 per cent to 68.7 per cent, while also rushing for eight TDs. He has become the complete package, aided by GM Brandon Beane’s signing of Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs over the summer.

Diggs has an NFL-high 111 catches for 1314 yards, Cole Beasley is putting in a fairly decent Julian Edelman impression as a slot receiver and coach Sean McDermott is doing a perfect job not getting in the way of his talent.

The Bills defence, the only aspect of this team you once considered as fantasy-worthy, has held three of its past four opponents to less than 20 points.

Now with the home-field playoffs advantage that has been New England’s birth-right for so long, there is no reason Buffalo can’t meet Kansas in the AFC Championship.

With two weeks left this season, the playoff picture is so much clearer.

In the AFC, Kansas City (13-1), Pittsburgh (11-2) and Buffalo (11-3) have clinched playoff berths, with Tennessee (10-4), Cleveland (10-4), Indianapolis (10-4), and Miami (9-5) taking the other four spots.

It would leave Lamar Jackson’s Baltimore (9-5) outside looking in, and yet with the Ravens catching fire in recent weeks with a trio of stampeding wins they could cause serious damage. They need to hope Miami stumbles behind first-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. But as Tagovailoa rushed for two touchdowns in the 22-12 victory that finally ended New England’s playoffs dynasty, it was apparent he isn’t giving up without a fight.

Cleveland has been just as terrible as Buffalo over the past 20 years and is just as absorbing as a playoffs story. Baker Mayfield’s prophecy that Cleveland would snap the longest NFL playoff drought if it drafted him in 2018 is only a win over the New York Jets away next weekend.

He had all the razzle-dazzle tricks as an Oklahoma quarterback but has now found his rhythm in the NFL, dominating on play action in the 20-6 victory over the New York Giants. No one doubted his best was good enough but a formerly inconsistent QB hit 27 of his 32 passes to best the previous Cleveland record on a day where he recorded 84.3 per cent of passes. Beat the one-win Jets and Cleveland moves to 11-4, which will see them playoffs-bounds.

In the NFC, the Packers (11-3), Saints (10-4 despite Drew Brees looking shaky upon return from a chest full of broken ribs), and Seattle (10-4) have clinched playoff berths, with Washington (6-8 in the horrible-but-improving NFC East), LA Rams (9-5), Tampa Bay (9-5) and Arizona (8-6) currently in with Chicago (7-7) on the bubble.

The Jets, of course, ruined all their fans’ best-laid plans to tank their way to college phenom Trevor Lawrence with the No.1 pick by upsetting the Rams to fall behind the one-win Jaguars in the race for the NFL’s worst record.

But this column is always about the winners – and hoping for the most fun possible at that bucket-list Super Bowl appearance.

So even if Cleveland and Buffalo don’t make it this year, by the time we are back live on February 6, 2022 for the Super Bowl in Los Angeles they might be the kind of battle-hardened outfits to front up at the SoFi Stadium as Pat Mahomes aims for an NFL three-peat.

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