With Bengals next, former four-time AFC champ Bills feel something super in Buffalo

It doesn’t feel like 30 years.

Not to Jim Kelly, Steve Tasker, Marv Levy or other members of the Buffalo Bills who three decades ago made it to four Super Bowls in a row yet didn’t win one.

To them, the years have whistled past with the screaming velocity of a Josh Allen spiral.

But they are fans now, revered members of the Bills Mafia, cheering on a team that has a good chance of completing what their forefathers did not.

The Bills play host to Cincinnati on Sunday in the AFC divisional round of the NFL playoffs. It was at this stage last season when Buffalo lost to Kansas City in an epic 42-36 overtime thriller, a game so breathtaking — yet ultimately unsatisfying because the Bills didn’t touch the ball in the extra period — that it prompted the league to change its postseason overtime rules.

For the Bills of yesteryear, this finally could be the team.

“The electricity in the city is amazing,” Hall of Fame quarterback Kelly said. “More than anything, they just want a team that can win and hopefully get them that Lombardi Trophy.”

Hall of Famers and former Bills, from left, coach Marv Levy, Jim Kelly, GM Bill Polian and Bruce Smith watch retirement of Thurman Thomas’ number.

(Adrian Kraus / Associated Press)

Kelly stayed in western New York after retiring and raised his family there, as did several of his former teammates, among them Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas, safety Mark Kelso, special teamer Tasker and others.

“People don’t treat you like football royalty here, it’s better than that,” Tasker said. “They treat you like family. It’s not ‘Mr. Kelly’ to fans here, it’s Jim. It’s not ‘Mr. Smith,’ it’s Bruce. They call you by your first name and walk right up to you like you’re a family member. It’s always been that way.”

In Buffalo, old guys rule.

“People will come up to you and tell you that you were their mom’s favorite player, or their grandma’s or uncle’s,” said Tasker, now a CBS analyst. “That’s kind of the way it is here. It’s a unique environment.”

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Recent tragedies have further forged the Buffalo community, from the supermarket shooting in May, to two crippling snowstorms, to Bills safety Damar Hamlin nearly dying on the field of cardiac arrest earlier this month.

The Bills have been more than a welcome distraction. For many people, they’re the embodiment of hope.

“I think there’s a feeling around Buffalo that, yeah, we can win one,” Tasker said. “Some fans are famous for hyperbole and overreaction, like, ‘Oh, we’re never going to win one,’ ” Tasker said. “But I don’t think Bills fans are like that. Bills fans are like, ‘Yeah, we have it in our destiny to win one in the future. Maybe it’s in our destiny to win it this year.’ None of that doomsday stuff.”

Buffalo is 13-1 at home in the postseason, and 4-0 under current coach Sean McDermott. The Bills have won eight games in a row, matching their longest streak since 2020, and Allen has rounded into one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks. In seven playoff appearances, he has 2,070 yards passing and 17 touchdowns.

But the Bengals are no pushovers. They are 2-0 against the Bills in the postseason, with both of those games being played in Cincinnati. They have not lost since Halloween — a nine-game winning streak — and, led by quarterback Joe Burrow, have reached the divisional round in consecutive years for the first time in franchise history.

Allen said the challenges and attention surrounding the Hamlin situation have brought the Bills even closer.

“I think it gives you a more sturdy foundation. The more struggle, the more adversity that you can see over the course of the year, it just makes you stronger,” the quarterback said. “We’ve been in some really weird situations this year that not a lot of teams maybe have ever gone through. Being able to have that under our belts, understand those emotions in those situations, and just try to use it to our advantage.”

Bruce Smith speaks with Bills fans before a game.

Bruce Smith speaks with Bills fans before a game.

(Brett Carlsen / Associated Press)

James Lofton noticed maturity in the Bills players when he was invited to speak to the receivers on a video call in 2020. He and fellow Hall of Fame receiver Andre Reed, teammates in the early 1990s, talked to the next generation of pass catchers in a virtual meeting that connected the club’s stars of the past and present.

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“You kind of want guys to overlook personal statistics and play for each other,” said Lofton, an analyst for CBS and Westwood One. “I think that as I watch this team, that’s what I see them doing. I’ve gotten a chance to do a couple games here and there, and they really are about as unselfish a group as they can be.”

That’s precisely what Levy preached when he coached the Bills from 1986 to ’97, earning his spot in the Hall of Fame. In September, he and his wife traveled from their home in Chicago to Buffalo for the Bills’ home opener. It was their first trip since the beginning of the pandemic. The 97-year-old coach received rock-star treatment while waiting for his flight.

“Fans were all over Marv, kissing and hugging, taking pictures and selfies,” Fran Levy said. “On the plane, they surrounded him when he was sitting in the aisle seat. When we got off the plane in the Buffalo airport, it took us an hour — it’s not a big airport — to get out because fans wanted to be around Marv.”

Levy was introduced on the field before the game to a standing ovation from 71,000 fans, and he delivered the famous line he used to tell his players: “Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?”

The raucous crowd finished the sentence for him in unison.

“The fans in Buffalo are so deserving of a great team,” Levy said. “And I’ve now become one of them.”

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