Flem File: Even the losers get lucky
Well, try to look at it this way, Bills fans: At least you'll never have to hear about "wide right" ever again.
The extraordinary Super Bowl XLVI is now in the books and after a wonderful job as host, the town of Indianapolis can return to normal. At least I hope it can. Who knows, after the whole Eminem-Marv Levy fracas Friday night and Lady Gaga's bizarre pregame performance Sunday -- has she made bail yet? In fact, it still seems like only yesterday (or, the day before yesterday) that we were in Week 4 of the season and this year's two unlikely Super Bowl teams -- Detroit and Buffalo -- were just beginning their magical runs.
I know, I know, the Lions and Bills in the Super Bowl, who would have believed it? Frankly, even now, it sounds kinda made up. And so, after such an amazing season and such a wild finish Sunday night -- Ndamukong Suh? Can he fly? Are you kidding me? -- I thought it might be helpful, and fun, to review just how the heck we got here, hung over, hoarse and covered in Honolulu blue confetti.
Looking back now, I think it really all began Sept. 25.
Just three years removed from being the only team in NFL history to go 0-16, the culmination of an eight-year skid under former GM Matt Millen the local press still refers to as the Vortex of Incompetence, in mid-September the lowly, laughable loveable-loser Lions roared back from a 20-0 halftime deficit (on the road, no less) to beat the Vikings 26-23 in overtime to start the season 3-0 for the first time since 1980. That year, of course, the Lions actually started 4-0 under QB Gary Danielson, running back Billy Sims and a DB named Jimmy "Spiderman" Allen who cut a remix of "Another One Bites the Dust," which promptly inspired the team to go 5-9 the rest of the way and miss the playoffs.
But not this year. Not. This. Year. Things would be different for Detroit, finally. Although, for the record, I did enjoy the self-deprecating Lions fan who held up this sign in the west end zone of Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday night: "We have abandoned lots bigger than your entire city, Buffalo!"
For the Bills, it all started that very same week. Remember? Just a shell of the organization that lost four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s, the Bills were splitting time in Canada and had lost something like 15 in a row to the Patriots. Loss No. 16 looked like a done deal, when the Bills fell behind 21-0 before picking off Tom Brady four times and stampeding back to win, 34-31. A loss so shocking and upsetting to the NFL hierarchy that Brady, needing a clean start, made national headlines by cutting his long bangs. Weird, considering he then let his wife talk him into the even worse Pauly D greasy pompadour.
Anyway, the Bills' season only got hairier from there. They beat the Bengals easily in Week 4 (until the fans revolted and the league finally stepped in and began running the Cincinnati franchise, everyone pretty much did the same). Then the rust-belt roller-coaster ride began in earnest. Buffalo lost five in a row. Then it won six in a row before losing in the season finale against the Pats to go 10-6 (not 6-10 as most of us geniuses had predicted) and set up that epic rematch on the road in New England in the AFC Championship Game. Does it surprise me that the Bills sold out this game at Ralph Wilson Stadium even though it was minus-2 degrees wind chill and the franchise could only afford to show the game projected on a bed sheet in the end zone? Not really, no.
Likewise, the Lions beat the Cowboys easily in Week 4 and ended up 7-1 by their bye week. The news the rest of the way was about Jim Schwartz, the linebacker and econ grad from Georgetown who constructed the game's next great defense around Suh and unsung hero Kyle Vanden Bosch, a unit that made history in Chicago. Who can forget the way the Lions pounded Jay Cutler so bad in Week 10 he retired in the middle of the third quarter and walked out of Soldier Field and straight to his car, still in uniform. After that, Detroit cruised to the wild card, then almost like a mirror of the Bills in the AFC playoffs, the Lions went into Lambeau Field and destroyed the Packers to set the stage for what oddsmakers say was the most unlikely Super Bowl matchup in NFL history.
I know Roger Goodell & Co. wanted large-market teams for their biggest stage, but this was one for the little guys. These were two long-long-longtime suffering fan bases -- remember when "The Simpsons" landlord Ned Flanders turned into the devil and was dressed in a Lions T-shirt? -- in cities gutted by the recession, both catching magical waves and riding them to sports' ultimate stage. Well, sort of. I've never been to a Super Bowl in which the two biggest celebs to show up were Kid Rock and Bills fan John Rzeznik. Although it was pretty cool that Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly braved the chilly weather to tailgate with Bills fans in Indy before kickoff, just like he does in Buffalo.
The Lions got to the big game by, well, to be honest, losing so much and so often they ended up loaded with high picks and future stars. Guys like Suh, No. 1 pick Matthew Stafford, the sick Calvin Johnson and running back Jahvid Best. The Bills did it by Frankensteining together a roster full of unwanted and discarded parts that kind of leave you wondering why teams even bother to attend the combine or the draft in the first place. But in the end coach Chan Gailey -- a former QB at Florida with coaching stops at Georgia Tech, Dallas and a half-dozen other places, including the World League -- was the perfect, easy-going, mad scientist to bring out the most in players such as Ryan Fitzpatrick, the 13th and last QB taken (250th overall) in the 2005 draft; undrafted RB Fred Jackson from football powerhouse Coe; undrafted wideout David Nelson; and seventh-rounder wideout Stevie Johnson. I mean, the Bills' lineup on media day at the Super Bowl looked like the football version of the Island of Misfit Toys from that old "Rudolph" Christmas TV special.
Eventually, however, that lack of pedigree would cost them, but the Bills, inspired by their ailing 92-year-old owner Ralph Wilson, roared out of the gate on Super Bowl Sunday with crisp, inventive, dominant drives of 80 and 76 yards to take a 14-7 lead. In the second quarter, with the Lions backed up on third-and-10 at their 14-yard line, Stafford hung in the pocket, knowing he was gonna take that massive hit (by now you've seen it 100 times), and completed a 28-yard pass to Johnson. The Lions went on to score on that drive to tie the game 14-14. Still, just before halftime the Bills looked unstoppable and had driven to the Detroit 10 before Suh fell on a botched handoff from Fitzpatrick to Jackson to keep the score tied. By the way, local boy John Mellencamp really came up with the performance of a lifetime for the halftime show, didn't he? No dancers. No lasers. Just the opening riff from "Authority Song" blasting and rattling the walls of Lucas Oil Stadium.
OK, so, anyway, Stefan Logan returned the second half kickoff 61 yards to set up Best's 9-yard touchdown run for the Lions' first lead. Then Fitzpatrick led the Bills on an 80-yard TD drive to tie the game. Two big things happened next: With Johnson double- and triple-teamed, Stafford started checking the ball down to tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, who just ate up yards down the middle of the field. Also, strategically, I don't think there's any question the worst thing the Bills did was beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Because, as we now know, the very next day a bitter Bill Belichick flew to Detroit to help his former assistant Schwartz work up a game plan for the Super Bowl. And in the third quarter, as the initial hype of the game wore off, the Bills came out flat and the Lions defense, boosted by the appearance of a healthy Nick Fairley, pounced.
At times, just like Bills center Eric Wood said after the game, it seemed as if there were three guys named Suh on the field. He was everywhere. Flushing Fitzpatrick to the sidelines. Blowing up double-teams to stuff the run. Before his rookie season, I talked to Suh's dad, who told me that when he was a kid Ndamukong would take apart things -- like the radio or answering machine -- and put them back together because he wanted to know exactly how they worked.
I guess he felt the same way about the Bills offense, especially late in the third quarter, when he tipped a pass that linebacker Justin Durant intercepted at the Lions' 28 to stall a Buffalo drive. The Lions had to punt, but on the very next drive Suh caught Nelson from behind and forced a fumble that Fairley returned to the Bills' 7. Detroit punched it in to take a 28-21 lead with 12:39 to play. It was almost haunting the way the Bills were able to move the ball up and down the field, only to be thwarted, time and again, by the Lions' opportunistic defense inside the 20.
That changed late in the game when, thanks to a drive-saving 13-yard completion on third-and-6 by Johnson, the Bills scored on a 2-yard run to tie the game at 28 with 3:58 left. On their next possession, facing fourth-and-1 at the Bills 43, Schwartz used Suh as a lead blocker and Best did the rest. The stunned Bills were caught off-guard a few plays later with Suh in the backfield again, this time as a decoy, blowing a coverage that the Lions exploited for a 12-yard gain to set up a beautiful 40-yard field goal from Jason Hanson, a fitting career capstone for the poor guy who has spent 20 awful seasons suffering with the Lions in Motown.
Hanson was nearly the goat, however, when he shanked the ensuing kickoff and, after completions of 10 and 20 yards to Johnson, Fitzpatrick had the Bills at the Lions' 25 with :08 left to play. Somehow, and we'll be debating this until the end of time, I know, Buffalo got caught with 12 men in the huddle, a flag that backed it up to the 30, where 21 years after Super Bowl XXV, history seemed to be cruelly and inexplicably repeating itself for Bills fans.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Rian Lindell trotted confidently to the 37-yard line, keeping his head down and staring at the turf the entire time. Bills players clasped hands in a long line all the way down their sideline. "Here we go, the Super Bowl will ride on the foot of Lindell," came the radio call.
Captured in super slow-mo for the entire world to see, just before the snap Vanden Bosch saw something in the left B-gap of the Bills' line. He stood up and ordered Suh to switch places with him. He did, getting his fist in the turf just as the ball was snapped.
For the record, the snap was perfect and the laces, this time, were facing out.
Lindell swung through the ball strong and true and, I'm sorry to say, it came off his foot pure and clean.
That is until a leaping Suh, who had plowed over two Bills blockers, caught just the very tip of the ball with his outstretched left hand, redirecting the ball ever so slightly to the left.
In the dead air, with the crowd silent, the ball rotated end-over-end, floating ever so slightly from dead center to just a whisper over the left upright.
Lions win 31-28.
Yes, can you believe it?
It would take some time but the football world would eventually get used to having the Lions and Lombardi locked in the same sentence.
By my count it took six players, as well as Schwartz and the mascot, to carry Suh off the field. "We would have won in overtime," the coach explained afterward, through eyes stinging with champagne, "I was gonna put Suh in at QB if I had to." After winning the MVP award, I thought it was cool that instead of the usual line about heading to Disney, Suh customized it for old-time Detroit fans by shouting, "I'm going to Bob-Lo Island!" Forever cementing his place, even at 25 years old, among such Motor City sports legends as Al Kaline and Gordie Howe.
As for the Bills, ugh. What can you say? I'm sorry? Does that work?
Honestly, I wish this was all just a bad dream or some kind of a make-believe column.
Because I can't really bear to recall the looks on the faces of the players and coaches and, especially, the fans. Utter torment and pain layered over immense, reignited civic pride that I think was boosted considerably in the locker room after the game when, in a whisper, Wilson announced that Kelly, representing a conglomerate of local investors including Jim Carrey and the Russert family, had agreed to buy the Bills and keep them in Buffalo in perpetuity.
"Or even longer, if need be," Kelly shouted, through his tears.
Editor's note: Got a better dream/nightmare scenario for Super Bowl XLVI? Or, just want to change the outcome of this one? Tweet it (@daveflemingespn #FlemFile) or post it on my Facebook page (DavidFlemingESPN).
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. While covering the NFL for the past 16 years at Sports Illustrated and ESPN, he has written more than 30 cover stories and two books ("Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys"), and his work has been anthologized in "The Best American Sports Writing."
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