'What If' the Bills had beaten the Steelers in the 2004 finale?


“What if…” something that we say often, especially as it relates to sports. Being a Bills fan we use this term more than most. Everyone and their mother has done the what if scenario for “wide right”. I’ve decided to go a little more recent and take a look back at our most recent winning season, 2004.

For those who don’t remember this was year 1 of the Mike Mularkey era. Tom Donahoe was still the GM and the Bills were coming off a very disappointing 6-10 season under Greg Williams. This was also year 3 with Drew Bledsoe at quarterback. In his first season at QB for the Bills Bledsoe rewrote most of the teams single season passing records, both Eric Moulds and Peerless Price went over 1,000 yards receiving and Travis Henry had over 1,400 yards rushing. The thing that held the 2002 Bills back was their defense, so in 2003 the Bills went out and added DT Sam Adams to pair with Pat Williams, LB Takeo Spikes (who I maintain is the best Bills free agent signing of the 2000’s) and finally just before the season Safety Lawyer Milloy. After drubbings of the Patriots and Jaguars weeks 1 & 2 the Bills 2003 campaign quickly fell apart and ended with a 31-0 loss to the eventual Super Bowl winning Patriots. The 03 Bills missed Peerless Price as the number 2 wide receiver to Eric Moulds as Josh Reed proved not worthy of the role. So in 2004 along with new offensive minded Head Coach Mike Mularkey came 1st round draft pick Lee Evans to compliment Moulds, the Bills would also draft Bledsoe’s future replacement later in Round 1, JP Losman. The Bills original plan was draft Miami of Ohio quarterback Ben Roethlisberger but were not able to manufacture to moves to get in front of the Steelers (another what if scenario).

The 2004 campaign got off to a rough start with an excruciating last second loss at home to the Jaguars (I was sitting in the end zone that Ernest Wilford caught the game winning TD in). Despite playing tough the Bills started the season 0-4. In the 5th game of the year the Bills made a pretty big change, despite over 2,700+ yards rushing combined the two previous seasons, Travis Henry was basically benched for 2003 1st round draft pick Willis McGahee, Mcgahee went on to have a monster season for the Bills rushing for 1,128 yards and 13 touchdowns (who was the last Bill with that many TD’s in one year?). The Bills beat the Dolphins in week 6 and then lost to the Ravens week 7 to fall to 1-5. Back to back wins over the Cardinals and Jets improved the Bills to 3-5 and brought on a primetime match-up with the ever so hated Patriots. Patriots dominated the game and the Bills were 3-6, season over. What would follow was awesome, the Bills ran off a 6 game winning streak with the combined score of 228-89. Not only were the Bills winning but they were dominating. The 6 game win streak brought the Bills 9-6 with only a home date against the Steelers left. If the Bills were to win and get a little help (which they did get) then they would be playoff bound.

The 2004 the Steelers were no easy victory, they finished the regular season 15-1 behind rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger. However, due to the fact they had locked up the number 1 seed they elected not to play several of their starters in what was for them a meaningless game against the Bills. That meant no Big Ben at QB, no Jerome Bettis at RB, most of their All Pro defenders on the bench. So what happened? The Bills laid an egg at home, a team who’s lowest scoring game of the previous 6 weeks was 33 points was only able to muster 24. The Steelers won the game 29-24 in which Bledsoe proved ineffective for the majority of the game. In fairness to the Steelers bench players, they did play Tommy Maddox at QB, a QB who had won and brought his team to the playoffs before. Also two unknown undrafted free agents emerged from the game for the Steelers, at RB Willie Parker had his first career 100 yard rushing game and LB James Harrison made his first impact in this game with big fumble return for a TD.

So back to the subject of which this whole article is based on, “what if” the Bills had won the game? If the Bills had won I’m not going to pretend that they would have beat the number 3 seeded Peyton Manning led Indianapolis Colts, so let’s pretend they lose and get eliminated right there. Even with a first round exit I think it would have had a huge impact on the makeup of this team. First off, for the most part teams who make the playoffs don’t cut their Quarterbacks in the offseason, so most likely Drew Bledsoe is still the QB in 2005. Making the playoffs also would afford the general manager and head coach some more leeway so Donahue and Mularkey are most likely not gone at the close of the 2005 season. If they are not fired then the Dick Jauron era never begins. I dare not speculate any further past this point but you can see the Butterfly effect that winning the 2004 finale would have had. For the people who argue that the 2005 season would still have been bad leading to the firings I’d argue this, would a Drew Bledsoe led team look as inept as the JP Losman/Kelly Holcomb did in 5 losses of 5 points or less? Win 3 of those and the Bills are 8-8 and no one is fired. No one knows for sure, but it sure is fun to think about it.

What do you think fellow Bills fans? Would making the playoffs in 2004 dramatically altered the Bills future?

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