Twenty-one starting quarterbacks, nine head coaches and one ownership change later, the Buffalo Bills are going back to the AFC Championship Game.
On a 34-degree night, they set aside all the futility and heartache, the pain and suffering, the builds and rebuilds, to deliver a figurative and literal knockout to the Baltimore Ravens, making Bills Stadium seem as if all of Western New York were present rather than just the fortunate 6,772 who gained access.
If the 17-3 victory seemed magical to these proud fans, it was no less surreal for the players, some of whom broke with their normal business-as-usual approach to acknowledge the significance of the moment. Left tackle Dion Dawkins was one of them. The 6-foot-5, 320-pound left tackle is as gifted in the art of gab as he is in protecting quarterback Josh Allen's blindside, but at times even he struggled to put the accomplishment into perspective.
"It will hit in about half an hour when guys get in their car and sit back and think about: 'Yo, we're two games away from the Big Show. We're in the AFC Championship Game in our next game,'" he said. "It's a special time to be a Buffalo Bill."
That sentiment was shared by at least one member of that 1993 team, which went on to make the last of four consecutive appearances in the Super Bowl. Hall of Fame wide receiver Andre Reed watched the game from his home in Southern California, with a heart that was full.
"It feels like the early 1990s, with a team, a town and a dream combining in hopes of bringing this city a championship that's long overdue," he texted. "Why not us? Believe in the process."
Reed said he will be in Buffalo next weekend should the Bills wind up hosting the conference final. That will only happen if the Cleveland Browns upset the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs on Sunday. Otherwise the AFC Championship Game will be played at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, not that it really matters to these Bills.
There is a confidence in their countenance, a swagger in their walk. They have won eight in a row and 11 of 12, including the playoffs. Last week they surrendered 163 yards rushing in a win over the Colts, but against the Ravens they near-flawlessly executed the game plan of defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier to shut down the league's No. 1 rushing team, a Ravens group that churned out 263 yards on the ground the previous week against Tennessee.
"They did a phenomenal job," head coach Sean McDermott said. "It was a great plan, a well-executed plan. The way they practiced during the week was well mapped out and intentional, and I thought the players showed that in the way that they played. That's a tough offense to stop in that they're unique in what they do as it relates to the NFL."
It was clear early on that points were going to be hard to come by, not only because of the two talented defenses, but also because of the weather conditions. Strong winds contributed to three missed field goals in the first half, two by Baltimore's Justin Tucker, the league's best kicker. He hit the left upright on one attempt and the right upright on the other. The odds of any player doing that are pretty long, but they likely pale in comparison to the odds of Tucker missing two attempts from under 50 yards in a game, let alone a half. He's so reliable he did not miss more than two attempts from that distance in each of the last eight seasons.
With the score tied at 3 at halftime, the game turned in the third quarter after Buffalo went 66 yards in 11 plays to take a 10-3 lead on a 3-yard pass from Allen to Stefon Diggs. Baltimore responded by driving to the Buffalo 9, where on third-and-goal cornerback Taron Johnson, who was in zone coverage and protecting the seam, stepped in front of tight end Mark Andrews to pick off Lamar Jackson.
Johnson initially thought about taking a knee, which defenders are often taught to do when players are around them after picking off a pass in the end zone. But after momentarily hesitating, the former fourth-round draft choice looked out and saw green turf and only one white jersey. So he took off, leaving behind a group of stunned Ravens en route to a 101-yard return that tied George Teague's league playoff record.
For Buffalo, things went from a possible tie score to a 14-point advantage.
"The play, it just changed the game," said Allen.
"Huge," said McDermott.
"I look up and all I see is the last name Johnson running down the field," said Dawkins. "I'm like, 'What the …? Hey, let's go! Let's go!' We just ate off that energy."
If that was the body shot, the knockout blow came two plays later, on the final snap of the third quarter. The shotgun snap sailed past Jackson, who chased it down and attempted to throw the ball away to avoid a loss. But in doing so he was tackled by a pair of Bills and the back of his head appeared to slam against the turf. He stayed on his back on the ground for several minutes before being taken to the locker room and ruled out for the fourth quarter.
The Ravens finished with undrafted rookie Tyler Huntley at quarterback because veterans Robert Griffin III and Trace McSorley are on injured reserve. He broke off a couple of nice runs but did not threaten to score until the Ravens' final possession, which ended on downs at the Bills' 10. It was a fitting end considering the Buffalo defense carried the load.
The Bills were out of sorts offensively in the first half, so much so that they did not call a run play until roughly three minutes remained in the second quarter. They had only six yards on three carries in the half, two of the rushes belonging to Allen. They found greater balance over the final two quarters, with Allen finishing 23 of 37 for 206 yards with one score and no turnovers. Diggs repeatedly came up big with eight receptions for 106 yards and the game's only offensive touchdown.
But Buffalo could get away with those struggles because the defense was on point. It gave up yards and allowed the Ravens to control time of possession in the opening half by a 2:1 margin, but it would not allow Baltimore across the goal line. In fact, the interception of Jackson, who finished 14 of 24 for 162 yards passing and gained 34 yards on nine carries, marked the first time the 2019 league MVP had been intercepted in the red zone in his career.
"The defensive game plan was executed to perfection," Allen said in appreciation.
The same execution could be applauded of general manager Brandon Beane and McDermott, who were hired in 2017. They had a plan when seeking to rebuild a club that posted only one winning record in the 12 seasons before they arrived. The two did such a good job that some in the organization privately admitted last season that the team was a year ahead of schedule by making the playoffs. It showed in the form of the Bills blowing a 16-point lead in an overtime loss to the Texans in the first round.
This was always the season they targeted to make a run, and so it appears they are now right on schedule.
"We came here with a vision," said McDermott, who is the first Bills coach to have three winning seasons in his first four years since Marv Levy, the field general of those teams that went to consecutive Super Bowls. "We're not there yet, but just seeing it move forward in the right direction is good to see and feels good."