For the record, I am no fan of these Thursday night games. Actually, I hate them. Back in the days of Howard Cosell and Dandy Don Meredith, an NFL night game was a special event, a fresh and singular national sporting spectacle.
Nowadays, a night football game is just one more slot on an oversaturated TV grid. This year's expanded prime-time slate calls for each of the league's 32 teams to make one appearance on Thursday, counting the three games on Thanksgiving.
The Thursday games aren't a privilege, but a burden, a concession to TV ratings. It's tough on the coaches, even more so on players, who have only three days to rest their battered bodies after Sunday. Even starting pitchers don't work on three days' rest these days.
It's especially tough on the visiting teams, who have to travel during the short week. The record reflects it. In the last 17 Thursday night games, the home team is 13-4. The games aren't works of art, either. Six of the 10 Thursday night games this season have been decided by 13 points or more.
But the Bills certainly weren't complaining about the short turnaround after Thursday night's unsightly but vital 19-14 victory over Miami at Ralph Wilson Stadium. They weren't feeling sorry for the Dolphins, a reeling bunch who looked like a team on the back end of a day-night doubleheader.
When you've lost 11 straight prime-time games, not to mention eight straight within the division, any win is a thing of beauty. Thursday games are a pain – that is, until you win one. Then they become a trifling annoyance, a test of a team's will and perseverance.
Early in the week, the Bills said any win would do. They called it a must-win. Kyle Williams said that as soon as they took that crushing loss in New England last Sunday, their playoffs began. Why not get it started early? Getting right back on the field might be the best thing for them.
That's how they played, too. Williams said one game could be a spark for a late-season run. There's been good reason to question this team's competitive character. But they used the night game and an electrified crowd as a spark, and got a desperately needed win. It felt like a start.
“Yeah, it does,” said safety Jairus Byrd, who had a fumble recovery and an interception. “We dug this hole for ourselves, so every game is a must-win. We're approaching it like that. We're kind of forgetting what was behind and saying it's a seven-game season, or whatever it was.”
Now they get the reward for playing on Thursday: long rest. The Bills, now 4-6 and second in the division, have 10 days to savor their first AFC East victory in more than a year. Then they travel to Indianapolis for a game that could thrust them back into the thick of the playoff race.
The Bills began the week three games back of a playoff spot. But this win at least gives them a fighting chance, a flicker of hope in a down year in the AFC. If the Colts lose on Sunday in New England, the Bills close to within two games of Indy, their next opponent.
So unless the Colts pull the upset in Foxborough, the Bills will travel to Indy with renewed purpose. If they win that, they'll pull within one game of Indy and a playoff spot. If that scenario plays out, the Bills will be no worse than one game out of sixth place with five games to play.
The conversation would change radically at that point. Of course, the thought of this Bills team making a run is hard to fathom, after the way they played earlier in the season. But the Indy game looms large, and they have 10 days to get ready for it. A coach has to love that.
“You do,” said Chan Gailey. “That's the positive of this thing. Getting ready for [a Thursday game] is tough. It's tough on the players, really more than coaches. They get a good rest now, and we get the opportunity to prepare very well for our next opponent.”
This wasn't a picturesque win, by any means. The Bills have a way of making things difficult for themselves. The defense had its best game of the season. But the offense went 2 for 12 on third down, in part due to some dubious play calls by the coach. They settled for four Rian Lindell field goals and couldn't put the Dolphins away until the final minute.
But they were the better team. That's no small thing, considering that the Dolphins swept them a year ago. It was the sort of win we expected when the Bills signed Mario Williams – a low-scoring ordeal, with the defense carrying the day and the offense playing efficient, mistake-free football.
I won't get too giddy about a strong defensive effort at home against a rookie quarterback with modest weapons. Let's hold off on the hyperbole, at least until they make a similar stand on the road against Andrew Luck nine days from now.
But the defense, which was putrid for much of the season, is finally showing signs of life. They've made strides in the last three weeks. Mario Williams had a strong game. Byrd was sensational Thursday. Kyle Williams has been solid. The other Kyle – Moore – has been a welcome revelation.
Say what you will about Ryan Fitzpatrick. He struggled badly at times against Miami. His best weapon was the pass interference penalty. But he didn't turn the ball over. He got out and threw some lead blocks and played like a leader. He outplayed a rookie, Ryan Tannehill.
Leodis McKelvin has held up well at cornerback the last two weeks. He's close to a lock for the Pro Bowl as a kick returner. His 79-yard punt return in the first quarter was the play of the night, a bolt of energy and confidence for a team that was searching for belief.
It's just one game, and far too soon to attach any great significance to it. But the win breathes new life into a disappointing season and keeps alive the prospect of a meangingful December. The way the players see it, they're 1-0 on their playoff run. Who says Thursday night games are a bad thing?
“To play on such short notice, you have to rely on your adrenaline a little bit to put you over the top,” said Byrd, “because you are tired. I'm going to feel it tomorrow.”