This was going to be another one of those crappy flights home at the end of another December to forget. Kyle Williams has seen 11 of those. He flew home from final-month crushing losses at Baltimore, Philadelphia, the Jets, Atlanta, the Jets again, New England, Miami, New England again, Oakland, Washington and, last year, the Jets, often on the brink of contention as the season really mattered. Every year, for 17 years in a row and all 11 of Williams’ NFL seasons with Buffalo, the Bills would trudge into the off-season, also-rans.
Now, this time, to add to the torture, the knife would be twisted a different way.
Buffalo beat Miami 22-16 Sunday. The game ended at 7:40 p.m. ET. To make the playoffs, the Bills needed Cincinnati to beat Baltimore 1,070 miles away. Baltimore led 27-24, late, and Williams and his teammates crowded around a 36-inch TV at one end of their locker room in south Florida after an inspirational win, one of the best of their lives. Many of the players were still in uniform. It felt tense in there, Williams said later. The Bengals had a last gasp: fourth-and-12 at the Ravens’ 49, with 53 seconds to play.
“I mean, this was it,” Williams said from the locker room a few minutes later. “I see Andy Dalton get pressured, he steps up in the pocket away from the pressure, and we’re all just thinking, Make a play. But, you know, fourth-and-12. How many plays can you make there? Dalton makes a good throw …”
A superb throw, in stride, to second-year wideout Tyler Boyd. The room begins to erupt.
“The guy breaks a tackle,” Williams said …
There goes Boyd. You know what Chris Berman would say here, right? The Bills’ fan of all Bills’ fans …
He could … go … all … the … way
Boyd does. Touchdown.
“Pandemonium,” Williams said. “Guys hugging, guys crying. And all I can think of is, Baltimore’s got three timeouts left. They got Flacco. They got almost a minute. This isn’t over.”
That isn’t the ranting of a negative guy. It’s football realism, the kind you think about when you’ve been a Bill for 12 years like Williams has. But this time the football gods had Williams’ back. The Ravens had nothing left. And the Bills had their first playoff date in 18 years, breaking the longest postseason drought in American team sports. Seattle Mariners (16 years), you’re on the clock.
The NFL’s 98th season has had some weirdness—eight new playoff teams from 2016 for one thing. Another thing: The Jags and Rams being home playoff teams. Another thing: The Vikings being the Vegas favorites to win the NFC, and having a damn good shot to be the first team in 52 Super Bowls to play the big game on its home field. But the Bills making the postseason made grown men cry on Sunday night in Miami, and all over western New York.
I’ll get back to Williams in a moment, but what well-traveled guard Richie Incognito said to me from the bus on the way to the airport after the game just might make more Bills’ fans cry, again.
“This win is for the city of Buffalo,” Incognito said, straining to be heard over the happy racket on the bus. “This is for the people from all walks of life, the average Joes who show up at all our games, in rain, sun, wind, snow, sleet, everything. And all they do is root their asses off for us. The city’s the butt of jokes. Everybody makes fun of us. But these people, they just keep coming and supporting us, week after week. They’re amazing. The city’s amazing. I am just so excited for them, for everyone in the city. I’m telling you, this win’s for them.
“But I am so happy for Kyle. He is a Buffalo Bill … the Buffalo Bill. Just so consistent, such a great teammate. For him to get to the playoffs and to do what he did today, it’s just perfect.”
What Williams did was touch the ball on offense, and score, for the first time in his career. It seemed like a throw-in, a cool play but nothing that significant. After a Miami pass-interference call gave the Bills the ball at the Dolphins’ one-yard line, Williams entered the game as the upback on what looked sure to be a running play. Buffalo led 13-0. Miami was listless, playing a third-string quarterback. “We practiced the play during the week,” Williams said. “Ball at the one, I thought we might call it. So I go in. I’ve got a certain aiming point, and I’m focused on that. I can’t hear the snap count—there was too much noise. I have to go on movement of the ball. So I get the handoff and go from there.”
“What exactly are you thinking with the ball in your hand and the end zone in front of you?” I asked.
“I can tell you exactly: Don’t drop the ball. I played a little fullback in high school, and the one thing you learn to is hang onto it.”
No problem there. Williams barreled into the end zone without incident. Buffalo, 19-0. The Bills needed that touchdown, as it turned out. How about the Buffalo Bills going to the postseason for the first time since the 1999 season … and the winning touchdown was scored by 306-pound defensive tackle Kyle Williams?
Just too perfect, really. The whole day was perfect. “Where is today for me? In my poor career? Number one, obviously,” Williams said. “We accomplished stuff today that we set out to accomplish every year, and we did it. All the ups and down I’ve had, we’ve had, worth it. The surgeries, the losses, everything—worth it.”
This was an odd year for the Bills, in many ways. New coach (Sean McDermott), new GM (Brandon Beane), new ways of doing business. The Bills looked like they were playing for 2018 when they traded away big players like Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby in deals for future draft choices. “People looked at us and said, ‘They’re tanking,’” said Incognito. “And for some guys in the locker room, it was tough. We had talent going out the door. But [McDermott] basically said, Focus on us. Don’t worry about the noise outside the locker room.” I get that, but one of the tough things had to be that the coach and GM were new, and the locker room had no idea whether to trust everything they did.
Turns out, obviously, Beane knew what he was doing. The Bills are in the playoffs, and they’re one of the two big power-brokers (with Cleveland) in the April draft. But for now, draft, schmaft. For too long, the draft has been the high point of the first eight months of the NFL calendar year in Buffalo. Not this year.
“I never lost hope,” Incognito said. “Days like this are what gets you out of bed in the morning.”
Pause. “Can I tell you one story Kyle tells? I won’t be that good at it, but here’s the short version. Two brothers, out pounding a big rock with a big hammer, trying to break it up. One brother pounds it, pounds it, day after day after day. He gives up. Then one day his brother goes out. The first swing he hits the rock and it breaks. You just keep pounding. You never know when it’ll be the hit that breaks the rock.”
Incognito said he hope the fans were at the Buffalo airport when the plane got back. But you never know; on New Year’s Eve, with a temperature of 2 degrees, after midnight … wouldn’t there be better, and warmer places to be?
But there they were, about 300 fans, at 12:45 this morning, singing and whooping and screaming when the Bills came off the plane onto the snowy tarmac. A fence separated them, but players went to the fence, took selfies and danced in glee. At his car, Williams took pictures and hugged a score of fans. An APreporter found Williams, who said, “These are the toughest damn people in the world, and I’m so thankful to represent them.”
They take after their team.
A Quick Look at Wild-Card Weekend
4:35 p.m. ET: Tennessee (AFC 5th seed, 9-7) at Kansas City (AFC 4th seed, 10-6), ESPN. The tale of three seasons for Kansas City is trending in the right direction, which is bad for the offensively shaky Titans. Chiefs’ first season: 5-0. Chiefs’ second season: 1-6. Chiefs’ third season: 4-0 (by an average of 11.8 points per game). Kansas City had an odd JV type game on Sunday at Denver to cap the season, and now only the Titans stand between them and a rematch, in Foxboro, with the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots. For Tennessee to have a good chance in this game, the strange third season of Marcus Mariota is going to have to improve overnight; he finished the year with 13 touchdown passes and 15 picks, and with the best stiff-arm of his season. On the way to beating the division champ Jags, Mariota converted a key late third down by straight-arming Jag safety Barry Church to the ground. More of that, please—more running, more physicality. Mariota as a weapon is Tennessee’s best chance at Arrowhead.
8:15 p.m. ET: Atlanta (NFC 6th seed, 10-6) at L.A. Rams (NFC 3rd seed, 11-5), NBC. On the right day, any team in the NFC playoffs can beat any other team, particularly with the potholes in top-seed Philly’s game right now. Here, the key will be keeping an oppressive Rams front from wrecking an efficient Atlanta run game and Matt Ryan’s passing game. This has been an odd year for Ryan. His accuracy has plummeted five percent, and his plus-31 touchdown-to-interception differential last year sunk to plus-8 in 2017. He’s had his share of dropped balls. But to beat the Rams, with a red-hot running game and a pass game with multiple little-known weapons, Ryan’s going to have to play mistake-free, the way he did in 2016, and his receivers have to cut down on the drops. The one interesting X factor here? How a team of playoff newbies in Los Angeles will approach the first home playoff game in L.A. since 1985.
1:05 p.m. ET: Buffalo (AFC 6th seed, 9-7) at Jacksonville (AFC 3rd seed, 10-6), CBS. The Doug Marrone Revenge Bowl, or something like that. Marrone, you recall, left the Bills in 2014 for what he thought would be greener pastures when he opted out of his contract—and then a head-coaching gig didn’t come for two seasons. The Jags had a great thing going until eight days ago, when the defense got abused by the Niners’ new Montana for 44 points, and then on Sunday, when Blake Bortles played a convincing 2016 version of himself in the 15-10 loss at Tennessee. This is a strange match, because we don’t know what to expect of the up-and-down Jags, and we don’t know if LeSean McCoy (ankle) will be well enough to play. The Bills will have to fight the just-happy-to-be-there emotion, because their fans are waking up this morning (or this afternoon) thinking they made the Super Bowl. I bet Sean McDermott never thought part of his first-year head-coaching role would be to tamp down happiness in a franchise that hasn’t had any for 17 years.
4:40 p.m. ET: Carolina (NFC 5th seed, 11-5) at New Orleans (NFC 4th seed, 11-5), FOX. This game does not set up well for Cam Newton and the Panthers. First: Newton’s on an inopportune cold streak, completing only 50 percent of his throws (he’s been wild high) over the last two weeks, and the Panthers have been held under 260 yards of offense in those two games. The Saints, meanwhile, had an odd loss in Tampa Bay on Sunday, but still are as multiple as they’ve been on offense in years. Alvin Kamara is a revelation, both from scrimmage and in the return game. Who’d have thought he’d have been a more explosive rookie year than Christian McCaffrey? The New Orleans versatility has confounded the Panthers in 34-13 and 31-21 victories this year. You’d figure that Drew Brees would have some good moments against Carolina, knowing the division rival so well, but it’s the run game that has catapulted the Saints to dominance in the two meetings, with 149 and 148 rushing yards in the two regular-season games against the Panthers. Whatever Carolina coordinator Mike Shula has in reserve for this offense, he’d better bring it out now, or it’ll be a short playoff season for the Panthers.
What I know about the coaching situations
This coaching season might be relatively boring. A few things I’ve gathered entering Black Monday around the NFL, starting with a few points about the weirdness surrounding the Raiders:
• I have never seen a head coach, minutes after his season ends, announce his own firing. That’s what happened after the last game of the season for Oakland in Los Angeles on Sunday. What an odd situation to have owner Mark Davis and GM Reggie McKenzie nowhere in sight, and Jack Del Rio emotionally announce that the owner had just whacked him. Del Rio, one of the toughest coaches in the league, and a local guy who wanted to coach the Raiders ’til the day he died, was visibly emotional when he said: “Mark felt the need to change. I told him how much I appreciated the opportunity he gave me. I mean that. Very grateful. My childhood team.” Man, you watch that scene and you really felt for Del Rio.
• Great scoop by Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen on the fact that the Raiders were pursuing former Oakland coach Jon Gruden (40-28 as the Raiders boss from 1998 to 2001) for a second act. Is Gruden worth, potentially, a share of ownership? Consider that Oakland fans love reunions, and there’s at least one more season to be played in the Black Hole; those fans will eat it up. Consider, too, that there’s an expensive product to be sold in Las Vegas, and a 6-10 Raider team with a stunningly horse-crap offense (how can a Derek Carr-led unit average 19 points a game for a season?) isn’t going to excite many high-rollers. The money they pay Gruden, and the share of ownership (gulp), might be a necessary cost of doing business.
• The Raiders have had nine coaches since Gruden coached them.
• Gruden has been gauging the interest of unemployed coaches, and other men he’d like to work with, about joining a potential coaching staff.
• Gruden, obviously, is a hero in Tampa Bay for delivering a Super Bowl win. But since then, in his last six coaching seasons, Gruden didn’t deliver. In those six seasons as a head coach, his Bucs went 45-53, including 0-2 in the playoffs. There’s that issue. And this: If Gruden takes the Raiders job, it will have been nine years and eight months between games coached when he steps on the sideline next September. I agree that Gruden’s a good head-coaching candidate. But he’s hardly a lock to bring the Raiders deep into January.
• It will be cruel irony if the Raiders, a team that was pioneering in many ways under Al Davis, doesn’t honor the spirit and the letter of the Rooney Rule. The organization needs to be accountable to an honorable coach-hire process, and not just shove Gruden into office.
In a down year for coaching candidates, Gruden looks like a headliner for Mark Davis. But I would caution against expecting nirvana. Now for other coaching info...
• In Denver, GM John Elway is on the fence about head coach Vance Joseph, who will have to at least make major changes to the offensive staff. I’ve heard Elway is waffling about what he wants to do with Joseph, but late Sunday night appeared to be closer to keeping him than jettisoning him. Lots of rumors out there about who Elway likes, but one guy I’m hearing he won’t go after if he seeks a new coach is Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh—not that Harbaugh would leave Ann Arbor.
• Mike Mularkey likely saved his job in Tennessee with the win over Jacksonville and resulting wild-card slot.
• In Cleveland, owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam have steadfastly stood behind 1-31 Hue Jackson, and over the weekend I heard they were still steadfast.
• Cincinnati: total conundrum. I doubt Marvin Lewis would have major demand for his services if he becomes a coaching free-agent, and I doubt owner Mike Brown will be able to get either of two familiar head-coaching faces to return to Cincinnati: Jackson or Jay Gruden. But I do not know what Brown will do today when he and Lewis meet.
• Indianapolis, ideally, wants a long-term partner for Andrew Luck with a presence to coach the entire team, not half of it. The rumor that will never go away is that owner Jim Irsay longs to hire old Colts QB Jim Harbaugh. But the domineering Harbaugh, I believe, would be an ill fit with Luck and GM Chris Ballard.
• With the terrible news that Texans GM Rick Smith is taking a leave of absence to help care for his seriously ill wife, Houston owner Bob McNair and coach Bill O’Brien will meet today to discuss O’Brien’s future and his request/demand for a change in the football structure of the team. I hear McNair is going to agree with at least some of O’Brien’s requests, and it’s likely now that O’Brien will stay, particularly with Smith’s future understandably cloudy. McNair doesn’t want to lose both men in the same year.
• I thought Bill O’Brien would be a perfect partner for the New York Giants—demanding, commanding, good in quarterback development. But if he stays in Houston, the slate is clear and GM Dave Gettleman (see below) could go in a lot of different directions.
• Detroit just might end up battling the Giants for Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, assuming the Lions fire Jim Caldwell today, which is likely. The Lions are 25-24 in Caldwell’s last three years, with a top-six or -eight quarterback in Matthew Stafford, and spit the bit last week in a pre-playoff game at Cincinnati, being penalized six times in the fourth quarter and giving up sacks on their last two offensive snaps. Patricia, organized and no-nonsense, seems smart here.
• Chicago seems a good fit for offensive coordinators Pat Shurmur or Josh McDaniels, with Mitch Trubisky needing a hands-on mentor.
• Bruce Arians was a godsend for Arizona, and made the Cards relevant again. But he looked wrung out and too emotional to hide much Sunday after yet another win in Seattle (the Cards are 4-1 under Arians at the toughest place to play in the NFL). With Carson Palmer likely to retire, the Cards need a quarterback of the present and future, and a mentor to handle said quarterback.
In all, seven changes will either happen or seem likely: Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Oakland, Detroit, Chicago, Arizona and the Giants. It’s not the landslide some predicted. But you watch. Some team we least expect will have a time-stopper to announce big changes this week.
Uh, I am about to get Cleveland up in arms …
So in my rounds on the phone over the weekend, I heard this from a veteran college scout, a man who was one of the first to trumpet Carson Wentz as a high first-rounder during his final season at North Dakota State, on the fate of the first pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and on what Cleveland GM John Dorsey might do: “I believe there is no way Cleveland, at number one, will pass on [Wyoming quarterback] Josh Allen. This is Wentz reincarnated. Allen’s a perfect Dorsey quarterback. Just watch.”
Josh Allen, he of the very shaky junior season at Wyoming, the first overall pick four months from now. Hey, I’m just the messenger.
The MVP race is going to be close
It will be, at least, if my poll of 28 football people—nine active players, three retired players, a retired coach, two former front-office officials, and 13 other members of the media—mirrors what happens when the 50 voters for the official MVP award turn their ballots into the Associated Pressby Tuesday’s deadline.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady edged Rams running back Todd Gurley in The MMQBpoll for the 2017 MVP. I asked voters to pick five candidates, in order, and I used a 5-4-3-2-1 point scale to tabulate the votes. (The APasks its voters to vote for one, a winner-take-all system. I vote in that poll, but I like a system with more representation.)
Brady got 14.5 first-place votes, and Gurley 9.5—Baltimore safety Eric Weddle split his first-place vote between Brady and Gurley. The difference of the five first-place votes contributed to the difference in our poll. The results: