Less than a week after an infamous drought was snapped in Chicago and another was extended in Cleveland, some Buffalo Bills fans came to CenturyLink Field as experts on pain and woe.
Of the 122 teams that belong to North America’s four major sports leagues, none has waited longer to compete in the playoffs than the Bills, who haven’t reached the postseason since 1999. Their most recent playoff victory was in 1995, when they beat Miami in what turned out to be the final game of Dolphins head coach Don Shula.
The field was teeming with Hall of Famers that day: Shula and Bills coach Marv Levy, quarterback Dan Marino and his counterpart, Jim Kelly, along with Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith, two cogs of those Buffalo powerhouse teams that made annual treks to the Super Bowl, only to return as forlorn runners-up.
“This is not a must-win,” Levy assured at one Super Bowl. “World War II was a must-win.”
Well played, Marv.
Monday night did not pose any version of a must-win scenario for either team. The Seahawks’ assignment against the Bills was more like the final exam of a first semester that turned out to be more trying than anticipated but less traumatic than it could have been.
Injuries compromised the mobility of quarterback Russell Wilson and transformed running back Thomas Rawls, last season’s breakout star, into an inactive-list staple. The season-opening, 12-10 victory over Miami foreshadowed offensive struggles that revived memories of Tom Flores’ historically inept 1992 team.
Through seven games in 2016, the Hawks had accumulated eight fewer first downs than their opponents; 58 fewer rushing yards; 19 fewer total plays. They were penalized 55 times for 500 yards — compared with opponents’ 40 for 334 — and lost four more fumbles.
Such numbers suggest this team is hardly the juggernaut Pete Carroll called the best he’s had since taking over as Seattle’s head coach in 2010. Then again, the Hawks’ ability to put together a 4-2-1 record going into November is a testament to sheer resilience.
But there are issues on the side of the ball the Seahawks typically have dominated under Carroll. The defense gave up two touchdowns to the Bills in the first quarter. One was inevitable — a three-yard, Tyrod Taylor scramble set up by a block of a Jon Ryan punt. The other was more problematic: A 17-play, 75-yard drive that lasted 10 minutes.
Five times the defense was challenged to make a third-down stop on the drive, and five times minimal pressure allowed Buffalo to move the chains.
Not so long ago, the Hawks were virtually immune to that kind of slow, sustained attack. But once they gave up a 12-play, 97-yard drive in the immediate aftermath of Richard Sherman’s sideline meltdown against the Falcons, it began a trend that continued at Arizona (where the Cardinals gashed the Hawks on a 15-play drive) and last week at New Orleans (where the Saints went marching on another 15-play drive).
Absent injured defensive end Michael Bennett, a once-fierce pass rush has the look of a pedestrian group disinclined to intimidate. Which explains why the Bills, despite the problems they had with the jacked-up crowd — “delay of game” will be three words coach Rex Ryan won’t want to hear again — gained 209 yards in the first half.
Among those were 50 yards on the Buffalo drive before halftime, which ended with the comically bizarre scene of several Bills players trotting to the locker room with three seconds remaining in the quarter.
“The half is not over!” implored referee Walt Anderson, who had assessed a five-yard penalty on the visitors — delay of game, natch — for being charged with what amounted to a fourth time out.
The half was over only when Dan Carpenter’s 54-yard field goal sailed wide to the right. The missed kick exemplified the poor fortune that torments a team awaiting its first playoff appearance of the century.