CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. — Fathers brought daughters. Mothers brought sons. And everyone brought their voices.
The Bills are going to the playoffs for the first time in 18 years, and a little early morning chill wasn’t going to keep Buffalo from celebrating.
With the temperature at 2 degrees in the first hours of 2018, fans gathered to sing the Bills’ “Shout!” song and chant “Let’s Go Buffalo!” as they greeted the postseason-bound Bills at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Some 400 die-hards gathered to cheer the team that on Sunday ended the longest active postseason drought in North America’s four major professional sports.
“The cold is nothing. We do or die for the Bills. They work hard for us. We’ll give anything for them,” Ian Lewis said amid the din of people gathering at a fence overlooking the tarmac shortly before the Bills touched down. They landed just before 1 a.m. following their flight from Miami.
“My daughter’s 11 years old, and we’re season-ticket holders,” he said of his, Layla, who was by his side. “And we didn’t want to miss an opportunity to greet the guys for all their hard work.”
Happy New Year, indeed.
The Bills (9-7) did their part to get into the playoffs with a 22-16 win over the Dolphins. Then they got the help they needed in dramatic fashion, with the Bengals scoring a last-minute touchdown to defeat Baltimore 31-27.
Buffalo clinched the AFC’s sixth and final playoff berth and will travel back to Florida to play South-champion Jacksonville (10-6) in a wild-card playoff Sunday.
The Bills were stunned by the reception: from first-year coach Sean McDermott to 12-year veteran Kyle Williams, the team’s longest serving active player and inspirational leader. And it was no surprise that it was Williams who drew the loudest cheers, while being greeted with chants of “We Want Kyle!”
“What do I make of this? You know, I just think it’s everything that we’ve worked for, everything that I’ve worked for. It’s everything that I thought it would be,” Williams told The Associated Press in near tears. “These are the toughest damn people in the world, and I’m so thankful to represent them.”
The defensive tackle’s stature as a fan favorite grew even further after scoring his first career touchdown on a 1-yard run against the Dolphins.
The Bills’ game against the Jaguars will be played one day short of the 18th anniversary of Buffalo’s last playoff appearance, a 22-16 defeat at Tennessee. The game was dubbed “The Music City Miracle,” after the Titans scored the go-ahead touchdown on Kevin Dyson’s 75-yard kickoff return set up by a cross-field lateral from Frank Wycheck.
The Bills’ playoff drought spanned a generation, which was not lost on many who turned out at the airport.
“We were just excited. A perfect night to come out and support the team,” said Kristin Cahill, who was with her son, Joseph Kemp. “This hasn’t happened in his lifetime. He’s 16.”
Her son suggested greeting the Bills after the team tweeted its travel itinerary.
“He brought it up, and I said, ‘Let’s go.'” Cahill said. “We didn’t have any plans.”
Fans began showing up at 11 p.m., with the crowd growing as the Bills’ arrival approached.
Once Bills players got to their cars and dusted off the snow that had accumulated since Saturday, they had to make their way through a gauntlet of supporters forming two rows on their way to the exit.
“I wish I could thank everyone, every man and woman that’s come out,” McDermott said. “This type of welcome home just speaks volumes about our city and our fans.”
One fan held a sign that said “Party Like It’s 1999,” a reference to the team’s last playoff appearance. Buffalo hasn’t won a playoff game since 1995.
“Buffalo wouldn’t be Buffalo if it wasn’t for people coming out here in weather like this,” said Kyle Bower, a Bills fan who happened to be visiting from West Palm Beach, Florida.
Bills guard Richie Incognito has never been to the playoffs in his previous 10 NFL seasons, and has never been on a team that finished a season with a winning record.
“It’s amazing. I’ve been waiting to come home to this my entire career,” Incognito said. “We put a lot of hard work, blood, sweat and tears into what we do. And this is what it’s for: to come home to a crowd of fans jumping around in 2-degree weather.”