Entering the 2020 season, Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane said the team’s goal was to host a playoff game.
The Bills captured their first AFC East title since 1995 with a 48-19 win on Saturday at the Denver Broncos, locking up their second straight playoff berth as well as a home playoff game come January.
“I’m just so thankful, and I’m so happy for the fans,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “It’s just such a cool place to be a part of because of the work ethic of the people and the character of the people in Buffalo … I’m humbled just to be one part of it, honestly.”
“Buffalo has been waiting for this for 25 years … it’s just special,” Bills left tackle Dion Dawkins said. “If I could explain it, it’s just an unexplainable feeling.”
The division title is the latest milestone in Buffalo’s turnaround under Beane and McDermott, who has led the team to the playoffs in three of his first four seasons. Both Beane and McDermott received multiyear contract extensions in August, with the former crediting the opportunity to lead the franchise back to relevance as one of the deciding factors in his taking the job.
“This community and this team had such a great tradition in the late ’80s and early ’90s, to where it fell to in the 2000s until Sean and I got here, I think that’s what was exciting,” Beane said. “This was an opportunity in a place that’s been down for so long that had such a great tradition, and still has a great fan base. How exciting would it be to get this thing turned around and host playoff games here?
“That’s what Sean and I want; we want to win the AFC East so that we can host games here. That’s been the goal all along.”
Hosting a playoff game is a goal McDermott has preached since his debut season in 2017. After a pair of wild-card appearances, in 2017 and 2019, his players are relieved to have delivered on one of their coach’s most prevalent aspirations.
“It feels amazing. Just to hear him talking about it in 2017 and to lead us to the playoffs, it was incredible,” defensive end Jerry Hughes, the longest-tenured player on the Bills’ roster, said. “We knew we had the right guy in the building.
“It’s been a fun journey, watching how Sean has impacted this organization.”
Buffalo won its title behind another masterful performance from MVP candidate Josh Allen, who threw for 359 yards and scored four touchdowns — two each on the ground and through the air.
His favorite target was wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who continued to reach new heights in his first season with the team. One week after setting a career high in receiving yards, Diggs set another in receptions, and he broke Eric Moulds’ franchise record for catches in a single season along the way. Diggs finished with 147 yards on 11 catches before leaving with a foot injury. His injury isn’t thought to be serious, a source said. Diggs now has 111 catches for 1,314 yards on the season.
The 25-year division-title drought was the third longest in the NFL. Led by Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, those 1995 Bills were just two years removed from four straight trips to the Super Bowl.
Stories of past Buffalo teams are exactly that to the current version: stories. And while McDermott tells his team that its predecessors laid a solid foundation, it’s time for these Bills to establish their own.
“The history of the Buffalo Bills is great, but the team that we have now — we don’t have anything to do with what happened [in the past],” White said. “Let’s make our destiny. Let’s make our own history. Let’s make our own stories. Let’s be the next team to go to four straight Super Bowls. Let’s win one. Let’s be the team to finally get Buffalo up and win one for the city.
“This team, here, we’re on a mission. I can feel it.”
After the game, players wore shirts that read, “WON NOT DONE,” an ode to the achievement of one goal while remaining focused on the next.
Allen said the division title “feels really good” but was more of a means to an end than a primary goal. The quarterback said that taking the division crown and earning a home playoff game makes the larger goal of winning the Super Bowl more attainable.
“That’s not our main goal. We set out to do this in order to give us a chance to do what we really want to do, and that’s win a Super Bowl championship,” Allen said. “Everything’s still in front of us. This just gives us an opportunity to give us a shot. That’s all we can ask for.”
Although fans have not been allowed at Bills Stadium all season as part of Erie County’s COVID-19 protocols, Buffalo has been as supportive as ever throughout the team’s best season in 25 years.
Fans flew a banner with a message of support over the stadium before the Bills hosted the Los Angeles Rams in Week 3, and at least one former player is excited for one of the league’s more tortured fan bases.
“It’s like a college atmosphere,” former Bills defensive end Cornelius Bennett said. “I didn’t miss a beat when I went from the University of Alabama fan base to the Buffalo Bills fan base. It was tremendous … and still is.
“I’ve been around a bit, and I don’t compare it to anywhere else.”
Bennett, who is a Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist for 2021, said he recently met with fans and that they were ecstatic at not only the Bills’ chances at a division title but also the fact that the defending AFC East-champion New England Patriots were knocked out of the running with four games remaining.
With a playoff berth and a division title locked up, there are still a few records left to play for as the Bills prepare to play at the Patriots on Monday night football in Week 16.
Allen is 359 yards away from Drew Bledsoe’s single-season franchise record of 4,359 passing yards — although Allen did become the second player in franchise history to eclipse 4,000 passing yards in a single season. Allen also is three touchdown passes away from Jim Kelly’s single-season record of 33.
Cole Beasley, who caught eight passes for 112 yards on Saturday, has already set career highs in yards and receptions but needs just 50 yards for the first 1,000-yard season of his career. The Bills haven’t had two 1,000-yard receivers since Peerless Price and Moulds in 2002.
Several Bills left Saturday’s contest with injuries, including Diggs, White, cornerback Levi Wallace, defensive end A.J. Epenesa and kick/punt returner Andre Roberts. McDermott said afterward he didn’t have updates on any of them, but the team does have nine days until it plays the Patriots.