Thankfully, it only comes around once every four years.
Presidential election? NBC's Summer Olympics coverage? Nope, I'm talking about Bills-49ers week. I dread it.
Here's the thing most of you probably don't know about me: I was actually a 49ers fan before I became a Bills fan. Joe Montana – the greatest, most clutch quarterback of all time (not debatable) – got his hooks into me at an early age, and witnessing "The Catch" a week before seeing my first Super Bowl in its entirety (Super Bowl XVI – 49ers 26, Bengals 21) turned out to be significant to an impressionable six-year-old. Sure, it's a bit frontrunner-ish, but hey, I was six. Give me a break.
As I continued to follow the 49ers, I began to pick up my Bills fandom. Two strike-shortened seasons in 1982 and 1987 bookended an era of terrible Bills football, and as a result it took me longer to appreciate the Bills. But I eventually learned to do so, largely because of my dad. He took me to my first game (against the Jets) in 1984 and supplemented that seed by taking me to various other games sprinkled throughout the 80s, as well as a VIP training camp visit to Fredonia in the summer of 1988 where a star-struck pre-teen version of me got to meet several players and coaches. (Side note: at the age of 12, I was almost as tall as Steve Tasker. I chuckle about that to this day.)
Becoming a Bills fan thusly happened by osmosis in a way, which tends to be somewhat inevitable when you live in a market that’s as chock-full of diehard fans and media attention as Buffalo. Either you adopt the team your dad roots for, or you become so saturated with the intense media coverage that you can't help but take notice. In my case, it was both. (To provide a counter-example, a lack of either influence is likely the reason nobody cared about the Atlanta Thrashers. But I digress.)
I root hard and I root proudly for both my teams. I have a "1a" and a "1b" football team, and unlike a certain Buffalo hockey coach who claims to have a 1a and a 1b goaltender and then proceeds to ride his "1a" for 95 games in an 82-game season, I split my support equally between both of them. There's usually no conflict of interest here; residing in different conferences means their best interests are almost never in contention with each other. Asking me to choose between them is like asking me which one of my children is my favorite. In the moment, that question may sometimes have a viable answer; I'm probably a bit mad at the team that started 1-7 or the kid that just drew all over the wall with non-erasable marker. But long-term, I love all my babies equally, as Yahoo's Mike Silver is so fond of saying. (Love that quote.)
This dual fandom, as you might imagine, is the source of my aforementioned dread this week as it puts me in a bit of a pickle. I take solace in the fact that it only happens once every four years, but how am I supposed to choose a rooting interest?
The last time these two teams met in 2008, the circumstances were easier to understand. 2008, as you recall, was the year of the infamous and ill-advised Dick Jauron contract extension in which the Bills started 5-1 before stumbling badly. They entered the 49ers game at 6-5, still within striking distance of a playoff spot. (Technically, anyways. Realistically, playoffs were never really an option, because, well, Dick Jauron.) The 49ers, meanwhile, had already shot themselves in the foot that season and were 3-8 at the time. Mike Nolan had, finally and mercifully, been fired five weeks prior; Mike Singletary was about to lead the Niners to a 4-1 finish to earn himself the right to keep the head coaching position warm for Jim Harbaugh for a couple more years. Beyond job security for Singletary, the only thing a Niners win would have achieved was a worse draft position the following season – and sure enough, the Niners' improbable finish caused them to slip to the 10th pick the following spring where they chose Michael Crabtree. (Bust-like, to be sure, but in fairness not many of the guys picked before him in 2009 have made anything out of themselves. Looking at you here, Mark Sanchez and Darrius Heyward-Bey.)
Since a win was far more important to the Bills than the Niners, the choice was easy: I went to the game at the Ralph and rooted hard for the Bills. And even though I was amongst the home crowd, it still felt weird. Rooting for one team to succeed implies rooting for the other to fail, and it's never not awkward in this case. It's probably a similar feeling the Manning family experiences whenever Peyton and Eli play against each other.
And it's a feeling that will reappear this week as I watch "my" Bills take on "my" 49ers. This time, one team isn't clearly more in need of a win than the other – both are either tied for the division lead or are just a game back. A win for either team is equally as important as a loss is damaging to the other, as much as that statement can possibly apply to a game in September. No matter the outcome, I come away simultaneously satisfied and disappointed.
So what do I root for, then? Enter moral victories. I want to see both teams continue to do the things they do well while improving on their weak areas. For the Bills, this means I want to see the Bills' offensive line continue to play well despite losing Cordy Glenn and Kraig Urbik, I want consistent QB pressure out of the $100 million man on the cereal box, I want Stephon Gilmore to keep impressing, and I want Fitz to avoid turning over the ball eleventy billion times. Even if the Bills lose, if I can at least get most (if not all) of these things, I'll be satisfied with them.
Of course, if these teams would rather re-enact the semi-famous Bills-49ers "no punt" game from 1992, I guess I'm fine with that too. Above all else, I want entertainment from any game in which I have no rooting interest whatsoever, so the same should apply here. Also, if you guys can refrain from injuring each other, that would be just swell.
Enjoy the game, Bills fans, and appreciate that you don't have to be conflicted like me this week.