The possibly-ready-for-prime-time Buffalo Bills have a prime opportunity to prove they belong amongst the NFL’s elite.
If one had to guess which NFL fanbase would have the most trouble belting the lyrics to “Waiting All Day For Sunday Night”, there would surely far worse estimates than Bills Mafia.
The rock anthem, inspired by Joan Jett’s “I Hate Myself For Loving You” is routinely performed by Carrie Underwood (taking over for fellow new century music icons Pink and Faith Hill) prior to the opening kick off NBC’s Sunday Night Football coverage. It’s probably ingrained into the minds of Dallas Cowboys fans, who have waited all day for Sunday night on a record 49 occasions.
Buffalo Bills supporters haven’t had to be as patient.
Since NBC took over the Sunday night package from ESPN in 2006, only two Bills games have been broadcast over the peacock-branded airwaves. Buffalo is part of a most unholy trinity, as Cleveland and Jacksonville have likewise “earned” only a mere pair of invites.
But, as the Bills (8-3) start to close in on their first division title since 1995, they’ll finally be able to make up some ground.
The Bills’ December slate features four games that will be available on a nationwide scale. That includes two appearances on ESPN’s Monday Night Football, which sandwich a Sunday night date from NBC. Buffalo’s game against Denver was also recently chosen to fill a Saturday the week before Christmas. Time will tell, but it’s quite possible that the Bills’ Week 17 finale against Miami (8-4) could also get the Sunday night treatment, especially if the AFC East division title is on the line.
This trek to potential glory starts on Monday, as the Bills travel to Glendale, Arizona to battle the displaced San Francisco 49ers (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC).
It’s easy to understand why a majority of Bills games have been staged in the relatively mundane 1 p.m. ET timeslots on CBS and Fox over the course of the new century. Buffalo, while passionate, is one of the smaller media markets in the NFL (ahead of only Green Bay in the Nielsen market size) but the team’s lack of on-field success and marquee talent surely played a bigger factor.
Needless to say, the modern Bills are looking forward to their moment in the spotlight.
“This is what you want. This is how we built the program to be. The better you get, the more prime time games you have. I think it’s an exciting time for our fanbase,” Bills head coach Sean McDermott said of the prime time overload on The Howard and Jeremy Show on WGR 550 SportsRadio. “”When you get to a point where you’re respected by the league and you’ve got a good club, that’s what you work for, and that’s what you get. I think that’s exciting for our organization and our fans.”
The interconference matchup will come up big on both sides. Buffalo is looking to maintain its single-game lead on the Dolphins for the division title, while San Francisco (5-6) is looking to carry one momentum brought upon by a win over the Los Angeles Rams last weekend, one that ended a three-game losing streak. The Niners currently sit a half-game behind Minnesota for the final NFC wild card spot.
This rise in national recognition is perhaps the biggest sign yet that both the NFL and the football-loving public are starting to truly see the football revolution occurring in Western New York. Last season, the Bills were granted one national game when the original schedule was released, bestowed the late afternoon Thanksgiving slot in Dallas. That victorious effort, among others, caused NBC to take notice, booting a matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Chargers in favor of the Bills’ Week 15 trek to Pittsburgh. The ensuing victory over the Steelers allowed Buffalo to clinch not only a playoff berth but also its first 10-win season since 1999. NBC will have the rematch against the undefeated Steelers next weekend, six days after their Monday doubleheader. Pittsburgh’s delayed kickoff with the Washington Football Team (5 p.m. ET, Fox) comes hours before the Bills do battle in the desert.
Buffalo’s other Sunday night showing came in 2007, when they served as the sacrificial lambs to the gridiron dieties from New England.
Monday Night Football has been slightly kinder to the BIlls, inviting them three times since 2010, though that still puts them in a last-place tie with the aforementioned Browns and Jaguars (though Cleveland will get their moment next week against Baltimore). The Bills have ended several streaks in this fledgling era of prosperity, but their Monday night futility still hovers. Buffalo hasn’t won on Garfield’s least favorite day since October 1999, when a trio of Steve Christie field goals earned them a 23-18 victory over Miami.
The second half of this modern Monday night double feature comes on December 21, when the Bills will possibly seek to put New England (6-6) out their misery.
But the Bills know that this onslaught of primetime coverage comes with a major responsibility. That stems not from the networks unwilling to put them on in years past, but from previously wasted opportunities earlier in the year.
Two of the Bills’ three losses have come with the eyes of the football-loving nation upon them. They previously fell in a one-sided Tuesday night display against the Tennessee Titans, a battle of unbeatens pushed back due to the ongoing health crisis. That defeat also had an effect on Buffalo’s originally scheduled Thursday night contest with Kansas City, which also ended with the Bills on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
Receiver Cole Beasley has said that the biggest factor will be avoiding the temptation to look ahead to more dashing competition, particularly those of the postseason variety.
“We have to approach it the way we have all season, we try to go 1-0 each week,” wide receiver Cole Beasley last week, per Sal Maiorana of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves. We’ll deal with the playoffs if and when they get here. We have to take care of everything that’s in font of us before we can look ahead.”
There appeared to some signs of looking ahead, those signs that Beasley warned about, during last week’s visit from the Chargers. Buffalo prevailed in a 27-17 final, albeit in one of the sloppier efforts of the season. The Bills turned the ball over three times and earned 332 yards on offense, their worst output since tallying 206 in the aforementioned loss to Kansas City on October 19.
Monday’s game comes with its own share of distractions. It comes against a 49ers team fresh off a Super Bowl appearance struggling to tread water in the crowded NFC playoff picture and one that will start backup quarterback Nick Mullens in place of the injured Jimmy Garoppollo.
The Bills will also return to the scene of one of their most heartbreaking defeats in recent franchise memory. With San Francisco’s proceedings disrupted by local government orders made in the wake of rising disease cases, Monday’s game will take place at State Farm Stadium. The Bills seemed well on their way toward a major victory against the stadium’s regular tenants, the Arizona Cardinals, but everyone who has followed the NFL for five minutes this season knows how that one ended. The Kyler Murray miracle, a 43-yard desperation heave that landed in the outstretched arms of DeAndre Hopkins, affected the fates of both Monday participants. Buffalo missed out on a major opportunity to expand their lead in the AFC East, while the 49ers remain behind the Cardinals for crucial ground in the both the divisional and wild-card races.
“The biggest thing is just kind of looking back, having that nasty taste in our mouths,” linebacker Tremaine Edmunds said of the venue switch to Glendale in another report from Maiorana. “When we show up to the stadium, we’re going to obviously know what happened last time we were there. We’re motivated to get back there and redeem ourselves. I know it’s a different team, but at the same time it’s in that stadium.”
Buffalo will enter Monday’s game at their healthiest, as not a single player was give any injury designation in the official injury report released over the weekend.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags