Buffalo Bills fans don’t deserve this pain

It’s the long walk out of the stadium that gets you. You’ve watched your beloved team beaten on its own field, and all you can hear is silence and the shuffle of feet. Surrounded by fellow fans, some wearing jerseys, others face paint, still others full-body costumes, you’re united in grief, with the hollow, yawning awareness that it’s over, it’s really over just starting to take hold.

Buffalo Bills fans have had many of these walks — so many, too many — the most recent coming Sunday night at the hands of, yet again, the Kansas City Chiefs. Patrick Mahomes stomped on Bills fans’ hearts once again, marking the third time in the past four years that Mahomes has walked off the field in triumph.

No franchise’s fans deserve the kind of relentless skull-dragging the Bills have endured over the team’s history. It’s not fair. It’s not right. But it’s football.

Hell, Bills fans have suffered so much pain that the Football Gods are rebooting old plotlines now. With a chance to tie the game Sunday, a Buffalo field-goal attempt drifted awry. As CBS’s Jim Nantz perfectly, painfully captured it in the moment: “Wide right. The two most dreaded words in Buffalo have surfaced again.”

Yes, Nantz was referencing the origin story of Buffalo pain, the would-be Super Bowl-winning field goal miss by Scott Norwood way back in 1991. Buffalo would get to three more Super Bowls after that — four in a row, still a record — but would never again get that close to victory. Now, after a couple of decades of wandering in Belichick-enforced wilderness, the Bills have returned to the postseason … only to find Mahomes ready to fire footballs directly at their skulls every January.

Look, put aside the fact that even if the Bills had made the field goal, it likely would've only delayed the inevitable. The game would have been tied, and Mahomes would have had 1:43 to get into field-goal range. We all know exactly how that would've ended. The Bills had their chances to win and flat-out missed them, yes. But at this point, lecturing them for that feels a little like telling someone who has just climbed out of a wrecked car that their vehicle’s pretty dirty and could use a wash.

The larger looming tragedy of all this is that the 12-lane highway of opportunity that once lay wide open before Buffalo has pinched down to, at best, a narrow alley and, at worst, a keyhole. Josh Allen’s cap hit, for instance, was $10.2 million in 2021, $16.3 million in 2022 and $18.6 million in 2023. Next year, it leaps to $47 million, and it doesn’t drop below $41 million for the remaining five years on his contract. That means Buffalo is hereafter spending an additional $30 million to keep the same quarterback — a hell of a quarterback, true, but still the exact same dude — in uniform.

Through it all, Bills fans will persevere. You know the Bills Mafia by its most cinematically extreme members, the loons who leap through tables or light themselves on fire, often both at once:

You’ve seen Pinto Ron, the gleeful weirdo who gets doused in ketchup and mustard before every game, and you saw Jason Kelce doing bowling ball shots out among the masses. Bills fans showed up to their stadium to shovel snow on a howling Buffalo night. Ever since someone fell into the pit where their future stadium will stand and the Bills promptly ripped off a long winning streak, fans have been hurling themselves into the pit, willing human sacrifices to appease those capricious Football Gods.

Right below the level of those maniacs stand the great mass of Buffalo fans, a loyal and beaten crew who have endured pain unlike any other franchise in American sports. Nobody — not the Jets, not the Cubs, not the Browns, not the Clippers — has endured this peculiar cycle of excellence leading to hope, then hope crushed to fragments by remorseless fate. Even the Lions, so long the NFL’s doormat, are enjoying their long-deserved success this postseason. For Buffalo, the days of celebration are always somewhere in the future.

A few years back, ESPN produced “Four Falls of Buffalo,” an outstanding documentary on the early-’90s Bills that ended with one painfully discordant note — a dramatization of Norwood’s field goal traveling true rather than flying astray. Set to the tune of Elvis’s “If I Can Dream,” it was a wonderful bit of wish fulfillment … and for Buffalo fans, it must have hurt like hell. It’s the hope that kills you, and the what-if that twists the knife.

When you love a team that brings you to tears on national television, you hope that somewhere at the end of all this, there’s a point to all the pain, a reward for all the suffering. Bills fans will have to keep walking. Salvation is at least one more year away.