Sunday’s game pitting the Buffalo Bills against the Cincinnati Bengals was supposed to be the game that banished all of the Bills’ ghosts past, present and future. It was going to expel the ghost of quarterback great Jim Kelly and other Buffalo greats who redefined “coming close but getting no cigar” by making eight playoff appearances in 11 years and enduring four consecutive Super Bowl losses from 1990 through 1993.
It was going to build on the good vibes that were evident throughout Bills Nation by the gradual recovery of Damar Hamlin, the team’s safety who collapsed with a heart attack after making a routine tackle during a regular season game against these same Bengals. The region and, indeed, millions around the world watched his slow and unsteady recovery even as Buffalo dedicated the rest it their season to their comrade.
The world did more than watch, however, as more than $9 million in contributions was raised for Hamlin’s charitable organization, Chasing M’s Foundation. Hamlin was at the game to thank everybody and support his teammates on this, another snow-packed day in Buffalo.
Weather-wise, Hamlin picked a doozy of a day to make his appearance. Buffalo is one of those teams based in America’s “Northcoast”—think Cleveland, Green Bay, Chicago, Minneapolis—who love nothing more than mucking around in the snow. And while Cincinnati isn’t exactly Miami or Los Angeles, it is a southern Ohio border town and is practically in Kentucky. No, chalk up weather conditions as another of Buffalo’s supposed allies on this day.
And it snowed, alright. The City of Buffalo had survived a blizzard in December, but its beloved Bills couldn’t survive the blizzard of passes and touchdowns poured down on them by the Bengals. At the end of the game, it wasn’t the Bills making snow angels on the field but the Bengal’s defense after intercepting a pass thrown by Bills quarterback Josh Allen.
The Bengals won 27-10, which was not how the football gods were supposed to operate on this day. This was not what destiny had seemed to be offering a Buffalo team that, prior to Sunday, were 13-1 at home in the playoffs—the greatest home winning percentage in NFL history—and were favored by 7 ½ points over Cincinnati.
After the game, Bengals coach Zak Taylor fielded numerous questions that certainly seemed to probe around the edges of what it felt like to come in as an underdog and beat the odds against Buffalo. Taylor saw right through the carefully worded questions and addressed the underdog narrative head on.
“Everybody wants to create a narrative we lack confidence. We’re very confident,” said Taylor. “It doesn’t matter what anybody thinks about us. We don’t care who’s favored, who’s not. We’re built for this. We have leadership at every position.”
And how did Taylor want his troops to view their task of beating the Bills and their 13-1 home playoff record?
Some might have sought to ignore the statistic altogether, but Taylor decided to draw his team’s attention to it. “I wanted to show that number to the team because I knew what it would do to them,” he explained. “It wouldn’t put fear into them that we were walking into that environment that people don’t win in. It would be the opposite… We had to beat them one time in a row.”
One time in a row.
The Bengals looked at that statistic of 13-1 and focused not on the 13 but on the one, as in the one game they had to find a way to beat their so-called destiny. And so they did what the smart money thought they most likely would not do: they ran in the snow and passed in the snow and tackled in the snow until, with all of the Northcoast and much of the world rooting against them, they read their lines from a different script than the rest of us and won.
Destiny, it would seem, is far more amenable to our input than is usually thought, and how we react to the narrative into which we have been written is ours to choose. Buffalo might bounce back next year and make another run that brings glory and restores honor to its fans. Let’s hope so!
But if this happens it will likely be because they’ve mastered the one challenge that matters most: the one in front of them at that moment.