During our hiatus, the Bills squelched the annual regional debate over winning games vs. securing better draft position by winning two straight, one each with Manuel and Thaddeus Lewis behind center. Lewis is starting today in New England, but WWM forges on, anyway.)
The last Sunday of 2013 -- both the calendar year and the NFL regular season -- feels like a good time to look back on what might have been.
Buffalo heads into Foxborough with a chance to a chance to match the franchise's best record of the last nine seasons (yes, by finishing 7-9, but still) and deny longtime tormentor New England a chance at a first-round bye and a longer shot at home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs.
Rather grotesque losses in New Jersey, Pittsburgh and Tampa make such a suggestion sound rather goofy, but there could have, maybe even should have, been a lot more at stake.
Looking back at a campaign every bit as erratic as you would expect from a team with a rookie general manager, coach, quarterback, middle linebacker and No. 2 wide receiver, it's not a stretch to see more than half of Buffalo's nine losses as victories left dangling from the jaws of defeat. Particularly if you suffer from the sort of viral delusion required to convince yourself to buy season tickets every year, or even block off three Sunday-afternoon hours 16 times per annum.
But the season opener against the Patriots, the overtime loss to Cincinnati, the Jeff Tuel Game against then-undefeated Kansas City and the Foreign Fumble Festival in Toronto were all a single play from going the other way.
As bad as Manuel -- and everyone else wearing a football uniform looked in New Jersey, he had the ball in his hands, down by a touchdown, with two minutes left.
And he led them into position to take the lead in Cleveland before absorbing one of the several knee injuries that rendered his long-term viability as The Man impossible to evaluate.
Flip any two of those six results, and Buffalo is 8-7, in a four-way tie with Miami, Baltimore and San Diego in pursuit of the final AFC playoff berth. Make it three, and the Bills face Tom Brady today in control their own destiny (one of my favorite sports cliches, as it implies that the eternal fate of everyone employed by the franchise rests on earning the right to get blown out in a road playoff game).
This is not to say the Bills necessarily deserve such an opportunity, or that any of the half-dozen tough losses enumerated above were in any way unjust.
But if Manuel's performance this year rates as maddeningly incomplete, the same can't be said of Marrone. His team goes into the finale playing its best football of his first NFL-head-coaching season, with a chance to severely damage the postseason outlook of a division rival for a second straight week. And they're doing so with what has quietly turned into a dominant pass rush, the foundation for a defense built on making the sort of plays largely absent for most of Buffalo's 14-year playoff abstention.
So, whether today ends with the the vengeful satisfaction of finally winning a game at Gillette Stadium or by getting run out of it, there's that, and the knowledge that it's almost next year. Again.
Vintage program cover illustration lifted from the excellent repository of historical Bills images at a Facebook page called War Memorial Stadium. If you haven't checked it out, you should.