As you drive into Buffalo during the fall, it's hard to not be hypnotized by the trees: Red Maples and Pignut Hickories and Quaking Aspens, clustered together, solemn and sturdy, leaves bursting in bright reds and yellows.
It's a waking dream that lulls you into a false sense of serenity; because ultimately, you're passing through this beautiful imagined landscape to end up at a Buffalo Bills game. And there are many words to describe the Bills franchise, but "dream" is not one of them. Pignut, maybe.
After all, for nearly two decades now, Buffalo has been stuck in NFL limbo; eternally rebuilding, always on the precipice of a major transition. They famously haven't made the playoffs in 14 years – the longest drought in the league – haven't had a winning record in a decade and are currently on their fifth head coach (sixth if you count Perry Fewell's seven-game audition in 2009) since the Music City Miracle.
In addition to the on-field futility, there's been plenty of off-field turmoil, too. Like the Jacksonville Jaguars, St. Louis Rams and Oakland Raiders, the Bills have been tossed around as candidates for dreaded relocation, and following the death of original owner Ralph Wilson in March, have been courted by the likes of Donald Trump and Jon Bon Jovi, with conventional wisdom holding that either man would ship the team off to Los Angeles – or worse, Toronto – as soon as the ink was dry on the warranty.
Thankfully, neither man ended up landing the winning bid; Terry Pegula, a natural gas magnate (and patron saint of Buffalo sports franchises) did. And just days before the Bills took on the New England Patriots at Ralph Wilson Stadium – the first game in five decades without the Wilson family at the helm – Pegula and his wife Kim published an open letter to Buffalo fans, one that made their intentions very clear:
THE BILLS ARE HERE TO STAY.
All caps and bold, just in case you were one of the original fans of the team and your eyesight isn't quite what it was when Jack Kemp was taking snaps.
In a way, it feels like the Bills difficult metamorphosis may finally be reaching and end. Of course, the result of Sunday's game proved that some things haven't changed – New England beat Buffalo 37-22, because they always beat Buffalo (they're 20-1 against the Bills in the past decade) – but, for the first time since the glory days of the early Nineties, Buffalo is not devoid of hope. The Patriots look about as average as anyone else in the AFC East, and even with their win Sunday, they're just a game up on the Bills. When they meet again in Week 17, it could be for the division title.
Buffalo's defense is allowing a league-low 67.5 rushing yards per game (and 2.8 yards per carry), overcoming the loss of leading tackler Kiko Alonso, who still has a very small possibility of returning to the field this year. And their offense, stocked with weapons like Sammy Watkins, C.J. Spiller – provided they give him the ball – and the ageless Fred Jackson, has shown flashes of potential, especially since Kyle Orton replaced EJ Manuel at quarterback.
Buffalo may be the most nondescript city in professional football, but it's provided the franchise with unyielding support, though good times and bad. Perhaps the city's faith will be rewarded this year. Drive through western New York and you'll see it: Change is happening.
Five Quick Q's:
How many Jets is Roger Goodell worth?
Try 50. Goodell made $74 million over a two-year period, almost as much as every current active member of the New York Jets is making this year. The Jets have an active salary of $95 million, with over $11 million going to D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Take out the $7 million of Nick Mangold and $4 million of Michael Vick and it's not hard to see how Goodell's value to the league is measured against the value of the Jets.
Which I guess is another way of saying he's not valuable.
After beating Seattle, are the Cowboys the best team in the NFL?
Maybe. Dallas' victory was over Seattle was impressive, though it required a miracle conversion of 3rd-and-20. And while the Seahawks are good – and beating them at home has been nigh impossible – they might not be the team we thought they were.
Dallas is 22nd in turnovers and 29th in fumbles lost. Their defense is 31st in yards per carry allowed and despite the presence of stars like Romo and Bryant, the Cowboys' fortunes rest on the health of DeMarco Murray, a player who has never played a 16-game season in his career.
Being "the team to beat" in October is as meaningful as dropping the most fire rap album of 1952.
Is Mike Tomlin on the hot seat?
If the ESPYs added a "Worst NFL Team" category then this year's nominees could be fascinating, but none would be as surprising (yet as deserving) as the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tomlin's team just got blown out by the Cleveland Browns –a team they beat on a last-second field goal in Week 1 – and two weeks prior they lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the odds-on favorite for taking that ESPY right now.
The Steelers haven't won a playoff game since 2010 and are only .500 over the last three seasons. How long will a Super Bowl title keep Tomlin safe?
WTF is up with the Bucs?
Great question. There's just so much to dislike about Tampa this year: their defense is 32nd in points and yards allowed (take that, Jacksonville), they've played the two worst games by any team this season and they gave up 488 yards to the Falcons, 511 yards to the Saints and 475 yards to the Ravens. Their struggles are as interesting as any success story out there…unless, of course, you're a Bucs fan.
Are the Chargers overrated?
Quite possibly. While Philip Rivers is the MVP of the first six weeks, and the defense is currently third in yards allowed, take note that San Diego has beaten EJ Manuel, Blake Bortles, Geno Smith and Derek Carr over the last four weeks.
Those four players had made a combined 33 starts since the start of 2013, 16 of which belong to Smith. That includes two rookies and two players that have since been benched, including Smith, shelved during halftime in favor of Michael Vick.
The Chargers looked great in their win over Seattle, but there's much less to be gained from beating a a string of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL. Let's not make too much out of San Diego until they play Denver in Week 8, and then it'll be easier to tell if they're simply doing what the Kansas City Chiefs did a year ago before they got swept by the Broncos.