ORCHARD PARK — To say the least, the Bills are in an unexpected situation.
This franchise, that has made the National Football League playoffs only once in the past 19 seasons, is off to its best start since the 1991 team finished 13-3 and made the second of four straight Super Bowls.
At 9-3, Buffalo owns the AFC’s third-best record, but because – what else is new? – New England (10-2) tops the East Division, it has to be content with the conference’s fifth seed, also known as the No. 1 Wild Card if the playoffs began today.
Suddenly, with four games to play, the Bills, barring a totally bizarre set of circumstances, are one win from a postseason berth.
Granted, they’re facing a brutal three-game stretch, the AFC’s two best teams – home with the Ravens (10-2) and at the Patriots – sandwiched around a game at resurgent Pittsburgh (7-5).
But that rough road had been four games before Buffalo hammered the Cowboys, 26-15, Thanksgiving afternoon in Dallas. The Bills’ first victory over a team with a winning record at the time the game was played, got the NFL’s attention, earned them national recognition and pretty much silenced those who were critical of the weak schedule that helped produce their first eight wins.
And, thus, here’s Buffalo hosting the AFC’s Week 14 marquee game when Baltimore invades New Era Field, Sunday afternoon.
It’s a new experience as head coach for Sean McDermott and his staff.
HE ADMITTED, “It comes from the work that the guys have put in. We talk a lot about things being earned and the guys have earned that. I don’t think we shy away from that, because they’ve earned it. But we also know there’s a lot of work ahead of us, a lot of runway to go.”
And since the Cowboys game came on a short week, this one has three extra days and a chance for McDermott to rest his roster.
“Those are the guys in the fire ... they’re out there putting their bodies on the line and there’s a mental component to that as well,” he said. “We wanted them fresh, physically, spiritually and mentally as well. That’s what we expect to see when they come back here (Wednesday).”
BUT BRIAN Daboll, Buffalo’s offensive coordinator, appreciates that his team is in the national conscience.
“It’s good to play meaningful games in December, that’s the goal, and that’s where we’re at,” he said. “We’re sitting in December, our record is what our record is, but I can’t stress this enough, it’s a week-to-week proposition (this time) against probably the best team in football right now. You just look at the last six weeks, the (Ravens) numbers are staggering.”
Daboll added, “The National Football League is tough … every week is tough, beginning part of the year, middle part, end of the season ...November, December games. You’d like to be playing meaningful games in December. That’s the goal.
“Your approach has to stay consistent in terms of preparation, practice habits and game-planning. There are going to be times where you have to face adversity head-on. That’s why you bring in the right type of guy, mentally tough, physically tough, people that can handle adversity. Our job is to go out there and perform.”
MEANWHILE, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier admits there’s precious little time for contemplation of what’s been accomplished.
“When you’re in the midst of it, it’s really hard to reflect.” he said. “Maybe after the season, but right now, we’ve got our hands full with the opponent coming up. You put all your energy and focus on trying to come away with a good plan for this team and try to come away with our 10th win.
“We don’t really make a whole lot about what’s happened previously. It’s very hard to win in our league … very difficult, a lot of things have to go right. That’s why you put so much energy into every opponent. You don’t really have a chance to look back and reflect (after the season) there will be plenty of time for reflection.”
But Frazier did admit these situations are the appeal of coaching.
“There’s some fun in this,” he conceded. “A little bit of a chess match. It’s so different than what we ordinarily see and what we prepare for. It challenges you in a lot of ways. It’ll challenge our players as well (and) every opponent that the Ravens have played ... you see what some of their scores have been like. It’ll be a good challenge for us.”
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at email@example.com)