In 2003 the Drew Bledsoe Buffalo Bills beat the Patriots 31-0, and the Jacksonville Jaguars 38-17. After outscoring opponents 69-17 on the way to a 2-0 record, the Bills went 4-14 and were outscored 352-208. Sitting at 0-4 in 2004, (with a weird week 3 bye) the Bills flipped the switch back to awesome. The Bills went 7-2 to jump back in the playoff race at 7-6. They would travel to Cincinnati who started 1-4, but was also back in the race at 6-7.
|2005 Week 14 Standings|
The Cincy game is special to me, I gave two tickets to a friend as a graduation gift, and we traveled down from my parent's house in Cleveland to watch the Bills on the road for the first time. The night before the game, eight to twelve inches of snow fell in Cleveland. We headed out at five am, and spun off the 90. Buffalo has snow removal down to a science, but Northeast Ohio's snow removal left a lot to be desired, the highways were in bad shape. We spun out three times on the way to the game, but each time we got back on the road. Finally arriving to the beautiful public money pit called Paul Brown Stadium. We were rewarded for our perseverance with one of the more satisfying Bills victories of my adult life.
Jason Peters, back when he was a project backup tight end, blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone. He would later become a vastly overrated Pro Bowl left tackle. Takeo Spikes, returning to Cincinnati for the first time, scored a pick-six which proved to be the game winning score. No Bills outing is complete without at least three short field goals, this game had four. The Bills won 33-17, as we left the stadium, the concourse and streets rang with cheers of "hey-ey-ey-ey, Let's go Buffalo" Every Bills fan we saw thought we were destined to end our playoff drought.
|2005 Week 15 Standings|
The following week, the Bills traveled to Candlestick Park and decimated San Francisco 41-7. A simpler time it was.
|2005 Week 16 Standings|
|2||New England||13||2||Clinched Division and 2 seed|
|4||San Diego||11||4||Clinched division|
|5||NY Jets||10||5||Win or Buf Loss or Den loss|
|6||Denver||9||6||Win or Buf loss + jax loss + Bal loss|
|7||Buffalo||9||6||Win + NYJ loss, or Buf Win + Den loss|
Buffalo hosted Pittsburgh in Week 17, needing a win and some help to get to the playoffs. The win seemed to be a foregone conclusion, the Bills would be playing for their playoff lives while the Steelers had nothing to gain, and would play their backups.
Buffalo's first touch of the ball was a Nate Clements fumble. Tommy Maddox, Willie Parker and Antwan Randle El led the Steelers to a 16-10 lead, as the Rams led 14-10 over the Jets. No doubt, Buffalo would step it up in the second half.
Buffalo did, Nate Clements redeemed himself with an interception returned for a touchdown to give Buffalo a 17-16 lead. Buffalo then drove from their own 1 yard line to the Pittsburgh 11 in an eleven play drive that ate up half of the third quarter. However, Rian Lindell missed the chip shot 28-yard field goal giving Buffalo nothing to show for their best drive of the game. The next play "fast" Willie Parker broke a 58-yard run, leading to a Jeff Reed field goal and a 19-17 Steelers lead.
On the ensuing drive, little known Steelers' backup from Kent State made a big impact. James Harrison went undrafted in 2002, was cut 3 times by the Steelers, and was signed and cut by the Ravens in 2004 before being resigned for a fourth time by the Steelers in 2004. Unlucky for us, his first of many trademark Harrison moments came in week 17, as Harrison broke free and sacked Drew Bledsoe forcing a fumble that Harrison returned for a touchdown to give the Steelers a nine point advantage. Later with 11 minutes remaining in the game, the Steelers with Brian St. Pierre at Quarterback ran the ball 14 consecutive times, eating 8 minutes off the clock, all of Buffalo's timeouts, earning four first downs, gaining 46 yards and scoring a field goal to push the lead to 12.
After struggling to score all game, the Bills scored in 52 seconds to cut the lead to 5, 29-24. The Bills couldn't recover the onside kick and the game was over.
I didn't actually see the game, I was in Cleveland for winter break. We turned on the radio and waited to hear the score, a perfunctory exercise in confirmation, of course the Bills were going to win, we really just needed to hear the status of the Jets game. We heard the final score of the Bills game, and turned off the radio.
I returned home to see the Jets send their game to overtime. The Jets went on a 19-8 run and would likely carry that momentum into overtime. This was my only consolation as a Jets win would mean the Bills loss wouldn't be meaningful. Of course the Rams' Jeff Wilkins won the game three minutes into overtime, creating a sad narrative: Buffalo fell to the Steelers' backups which gifted the New York (freaking) Jets a playoff spot. Then the Patriots went ahead and won their third Super Bowl in four years. In 2004 I decided I hate football*. Shakespeare himself wouldn't have had the heart to write such a tragedy.
More: McKelvin's Fumble
Losing to backups is, as Jackie Chiles would say, the most public of our many humiliations. But the fumble cost us the Patriots in Foxborough, the holy grail. Which was worse? Vote below.