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AFC East title on the line | Anticipation high for Bills at Broncos

Cole Beasley celebrates his touchdown with the fans. Buffalo Bills vs Philadelphia Eagles, October 27, 2019 at New Era Field.
  Photo by Bill Wippert
Cole Beasley celebrates his touchdown with the fans. Buffalo Bills vs Philadelphia Eagles, October 27, 2019 at New Era Field. Photo by Bill Wippert

It's Thursday afternoon, two days before the Buffalo Bills are scheduled to meet the Denver Broncos at Empower Field, and Ken Johnson still does not have concrete plans for the game.

In another situation, he would already be on the road. Johnson – known better by Bills fans as “Pinto Ron,” the superfan with an incomparable attendance streak and a pregame tradition of being doused in ketchup and mustard – purchased tickets to the game back when the Broncos were still allowing a limited number of fans into their stadium. The franchise reversed that decision in November.

So, Pinto Ron is instead considering making calls to backer bars to check availability – maybe one in Boston, if they're open. Otherwise, he'll watch as he has the past two weeks: alone in the bedroom of his finished third-story attic, standing in front of the 14-inch TV that rests on his dresser.

Between plays, he'll pace throughout the attic, using an old plastic tube that once packaged a barbell as a walking staff. If he times it right, his pacing will conclude just in time for the next snap.

His gameday ritual is a decades-old throwback, the way he used to watch before he began attending games weekly throughout the country. The TV is different. The house, the attic, the walking staff – those are all the same.

"That's the way I always used to do it in the '80s," he says.

The emotions going into the game on Saturday could have many Bills fans of a certain age turning back their clocks. A victory over the Broncos would give the Bills their first AFC East title since 1995, a feat that has been cited as a goal by players and coaches alike since the team convened in August.

Chad Michael Murray will be watching from his home in Los Angeles. The actor and Clarence native has worn his Bills fandom like a badge throughout his career, so much so that he has noticed an uptick in text messages on Sundays this season.

"My phone blows up every Sunday and I get messages from people I haven't heard from in 10, 15 years who are like, 'Man, the Bills are looking good. I'm thinking about you, brother,'" Murray said.

"Just because everyone at this point relates me to the Bills because of that diehard mentality that we all have as fans back home. All of us carry it. You're born into it, it's in your blood. That followed me here and I've never let go of it, not for a minute."

Murray was 14 in 1995, his fandom having developed with the great Bills teams that won six division titles over an eight-year span beginning in 1988. He says now that he was spoiled to grow up during that time, when winning felt like a given.

Murray can point to Bills memories for each phase of his life since. He had just moved to Los Angeles to begin his career at the time of the Music City Miracle (or, as he calls it, "the home run throw forward"). He made a habit of hosting friends and deep frying his own wings on Sundays during his years filming "One Tree Hill" in Wilmington, North Carolina.

He'll tune in on Saturday with his wife and two kids. His five-year-old son will stay engaged for the first half; his three-year-old daughter might look up and acknowledge Josh Allen on the TV. In a lot of ways, he might even be reminded of the team he grew up watching: the gunslinging quarterback, the stud wide receiver, the defense that just seems to play with an edge.

"I see a lot of similarities there," he said. "But I don't want to compare them. They're their own team, right? The game's changed, the league's changed. These guys, they're fun to watch."

Del Reid, too, will be watching with his daughters on Saturday. The Bills Mafia founder has seen their engagement level reach new heights this season, an experience he likens to his own early fandom during the late '80s.

"I don't know if they've every fully understood my love for the team and how I connect with, like, my fandom and everything," Reid said. "They're fans and they enjoy watching, but I don't think they've ever understood. And they're like, 'Why do you get so invested in this stuff.?'

"I've always told them, 'Because when the team is good, everything changes.'"

In a way, Reid says, a division title would feel like a restoration of order. New England has dominated the AFC East for the past two decades, having won it 11 straight years and 17 of 19 since 2001. (It's no accident that Pinto Ron is considering watching the game in Boston.)

"In a weird way, it's bringing back this feeling of nostalgia because when I was in high school and early college, the Bills owned this division," he said. "I know it sounds weird saying it because the Patriots have won it every year except for two during literally the past two decades, but it feels like something that belongs to us is finally coming home."

Reid suggests an interview with Mike Sullivan, who also fell in love with the Bills during the heyday of Kelly, Thomas, Smith and co. The proof is on the birth certificate of his 23-year-old daughter, whose middle name is Kelly. (It would be her first name, he says, but he was convinced there would be six or seven Kellys in her elementary school class.)

Sullivan became convinced that this team could make a deep playoff run back in Week 3, when Josh Allen and the Bills offense completed a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter after surrendering a 28-3 lead to the Los Angeles Rams.  He and his family have become more invested with each passing week, starting a new tradition in the process: cooking up vegan wings, a recipe he's working to perfect.

"It's a bit surreal," Sullivan said. "It's surreal to see this team play like the glory years again."

Yet as much as a division title would undoubtedly draw comparisons to 1995, the 2020 Bills are unmistakably their own entity. It's clear in the way the small-picture, week-by-week message preached by head coach Sean McDermott has trickled down not only to his players, but to fans.

Murray uses the phrase "humble and hungry" to describe this year's group, some of whom he has gotten to know personally. Reid talks about a division title simply being one step on a longer road.

Josh Allen couldn't have said it better himself.

"There's three games left," Allen said. "It's not just an end all be all, 'We won the AFC East, let's celebrate.' That was our goal. That's been our goal. That's the easiest way to get to the playoffs, is by winning your division. It's no small task, I'll tell you that.

"But we set our goal to have a home playoff game and that just secures that one right to do so. Again, it's not the end all be all. It's a step in the right direction and we've got to continue to keep working harder."

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