The annals of the Buffalo Bills’ franchise history are speckled with grief and calamity. The team lost four consecutive Super Bowls, went 18 seasons between playoff appearances and once lost a wild-card game on a last-second kickoff return off a lateral. Buffalo fans have seen some stuff.
And they did again on Saturday, when winning playoff football returned to Orchard Park, N.Y., for the first time in more than 24 years. The Bills fell behind, went ahead and fended off Indianapolis’s spirited fourth-quarter comeback to win, 27-24, for their first postseason victory since Dec. 30, 1995.
After getting intervention from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, and an elaborate coronavirus testing program, the Bills hosted fans for the first time this season, about 6,700 of them. The festivities began Saturday morning, when the Zubaz-clad crowd banged the bleachers, played catch with the receiver Stefon Diggs and unfurled banners with glee. One read, “Bundle Up America: We’re Back.”
The party was sure to rage deep into the night in western New York after Philip Rivers’s Hail Mary attempt from the Buffalo 47-yard line was knocked down, and the Bills, who had lost their last six playoff games, streamed onto the field to celebrate.
By routing Miami last week, A.F.C. East champion Buffalo clinched the No. 2 seed but also facilitated the Colts’ entry into the postseason, as the conference’s first-ever seventh seed. It was also, for the Bills, nearly a tremendous blunder.
Led by the quarterback Josh Allen, who had a role in all three Bills touchdowns on Saturday, Buffalo scored 17 consecutive points, turning a 10-7 first-half deficit into a 24-10 fourth-quarter lead. But as Rivers fired touchdown passes on the Colts’ first two drives of the final period, the Bills managed only a field goal on theirs, giving Indianapolis a final chance to tie or take the lead.
Facing fourth-and-10 from his team’s 37-yard line, Rivers connected with Zach Pascal, who made a diving catch for 17 yards but was stripped after getting up. The reception was upheld on instant replay, giving the Colts first-and-10 at the Buffalo 46, but they lost a yard on their next three plays, failed to reach the kicker Rodrigo Blankenship’s field-goal range and forced Rivers into making a desperate, but incomplete heave.
In reaching the divisional round for the first time in 25 years, the Bills knocked out one of their legends, Frank Reich, who is head coach of the Colts.
To beat the Bills would demand inhuman precision, and Reich knew it. All week, he emphasized to his players the importance of doing ordinary things extraordinarily well, and for the first 28 minutes of the game that’s what the Colts did.
They controlled the clock. They muffled the Bills’ offense. They pinned Buffalo deep.
Against Buffalo, margins are thin. Just how thin was exposed after the two-minute warning, when, leading by 10-7 near the end of the second quarter, they were a yard outside the end zone. Buffalo stuffed Jonathan Taylor on third down from the 1-yard line and Rivers’s fourth-and-goal pass glanced off Michael Pittman’s hands.
Taking over at their 4-yard line, the Bills went 96 yards in 92 seconds because Gabriel Davis had two toe-tap catches along the sideline and Allen, on a drive-reviving fourth down, got Colts defensive end Kemoko Turay to jump offside to give Buffalo a first down. On the next play, Colts cornerback Isaiah Rogers couldn’t hold onto an interception in the end zone.
Given those extra chances, Allen scored on a 5-yard run with 14 seconds left before halftime. And after the intermission, Buffalo’s Tyler Bass drilled a 46-yard field goal to increase Buffalo’s lead to 17-10.
Allen’s dazzling 35-yard touchdown pass to Diggs opened the fourth quarter, and Bass later added a 54-yarder that provided the margin of victory.
And now, after enduring 8,779 days since their last home playoff game, they will wait only a week for the next, against the A.F.C.’s second-lowest remaining seed.
Will the Seahawks stick to the basics against the Rams?
Next up, at 4:40 p.m., is the season’s final installment of a delightful N.F.C. West rivalry, with the sixth-seeded Los Angeles Rams visiting Seattle for the second time in two weeks to face the third-seeded Seahawks. The Rams lost that Week 16 clash — and their quarterback, too. Jared Goff, recovering from surgery to repair a broken right thumb, is available to start. If he is not, John Wolford, who threw for 231 yards and ran for 56 in a Week 17 victory against Arizona that clinched a playoff berth, would start in his stead.
The Rams allowed the fewest points (18.5) and yards (281.9) per game in the N.F.L. this season, but they also didn’t score an offensive touchdown in the last two weeks. Entering the postseason with that offensive malaise is bad timing, but it might be surmountable, considering that Los Angeles has held Seattle to 36 total points in their two meetings this season while sacking Russell Wilson 11 times.
On pace at midseason to throw for 56 touchdowns, Wilson tossed only 12 over the second half of the regular season. Coach Pete Carroll, apparently unnerved by Wilson’s seven turnovers in losses to Buffalo and the Rams, resorted to a more conservative approach — for years the Seahawks’ formula — facilitated by a defense that stabilized after a dreadful start to the season: Since Seattle’s Week 10 loss at Los Angeles, no team has allowed fewer points.
Chase Young will try to keep Tom Brady from getting comfortable.
The final game of the day, slated for 8:15 p.m. between fifth-seeded Tampa Bay and fourth-seeded Washington, showcases two quarterbacks who, based on all good sense, should not have been doing what they did this season.
At age 43, Tom Brady threw for 4,633 yards, more than every quarterback but Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, and 40 touchdowns, tied with Russell Wilson and trailing only Aaron Rodgers, to lead the Buccaneers to their first playoff berth since 2007. Over the last four weeks, they have scored 148 points, the most in the N.F.C.
For Washington, Alex Smith — whose status is questionable, as he has a calf injury — returned from a horrific 2018 leg injury to morph from third-stringer to backup to starter and help the Footballers secure their first division title since 2015.
Smith’s on-field production, however, paled next to Brady’s, just one of the reasons this game has been touted as a mismatch. Brady is surrounded by an embarrassing collection of talent in Tampa Bay (11-5), from the receivers Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin to running back Ronald Jones to the rookie anchor at right tackle, Tristan Wirfs. Containing their offense should be a struggle for a Washington team that ranked 25th in scoring and 31st in yards per play, ahead of only the woeful Jets.
It should be a lopsided game unless the Footballers (7-9) can make Brady’s life miserable all night — a realistic outcome given the team’s extraordinary pass rush. Brady succumbed to pressure in each of his three Super Bowl defeats and, at his advanced age, isn’t the most elusive fellow. Washington defensive end Chase Young led all rookies with seven and a half sacks and 10 tackles for loss. By the end of the night, those numbers will very likely swell. By how much could determine the game’s outcome.