Bills defensive tackle Ed Oliver made it clear last Sunday that while the Bills would certainly miss their star pass rusher, Von Miller, they had more than enough talent and depth to persevere in Miller’s absence.

“Von is Von, don’t get me wrong,” Oliver said. “But we have to hold it together. We’re ready to go. We can take it.”

Still, it was natural if a sense of dread descended on Bills fans Thursday, when word came out that Miller had been placed on injured reserve and would be out for at least four games with a meniscus injury in his right knee.

Miller, of course, has been seen as the missing piece, the free agent stud who lifted the pass rush to an elite level. But he’s only one piece on a Bills defense that led the NFL in most statistical categories a season ago.

Many of those defensive pieces have been missing along the way in an inconsistent 2022 season. But most of the key pieces were back on the field Thursday night at Foxboro Stadium, as the Buffalo defense looked like itself for the first time in weeks in a rousing 24-10 victory over the Patriots.

Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds returned after a two-game absence with a groin injury. Defensive ends Greg Rousseau and A.J. Epenesa were back after missing games with ankle injuries. Tre’Davious White played 63% of the snaps in his first significant action after missing a year with a torn ACL. 

For the first time since late October, Edmunds, outside linebacker Matt Milano and strong safety Jordan Poyer were on the field together in a game. You could tell the difference in the passing game with those three roaming the middle of the field. 

The Bills’ defense persevered, all right. It looked the way it did a year ago, when they led the NFL in scoring defense, pass defense and yards per play. They held the Pats to 242 yards of total offense, their best effort since Week 3 in Miami. They held the Pats to 182 passing yards — 86 of them during fourth-quarter garbage time.

Mac Jones completed 22 of 36 passes for 195 yards. That’s a feeble 5.4 yards an attempt. If you toss out a 48-yard touchdown to Marcus Jones on a quick throw to the flat, Jones averaged 4.2 yards an attempt, a number that was routine for the Bills in the past, when Leslie Frazier’s unit was near-impossible to beat down the field. 

The Bills had only one sack, but the defensive line was disruptive most of the night, forcing Jones to move off his spot and settle for a lot of the checkdown throws that have become his signature — and spurred the more impatient New England fans to clamor for rookie Bailey Zappe.

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen plays against the New England Patriots during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Josh Allen and the offense were efficient, if unspectacular, accepting Bill Belichick’s dare to run the ball and settle for easy underneath throws. Allen was 22-of-33 passing for 223 yards and two touchdowns. He wasn’t intercepted, but lost a fumble. He’s now 5-0 in Thursday games.

The Bills had 37 runs and 33 passes. They’re 3-0 in games when they run more than pass. They scored on their first three possessions to take a 17-7 lead. At that point, they had scored on 14 straight possessions against the Patriots over three games dating to last December — not counting kneel-downs or a three-play series to end a half

The Bills held the ball for 38:08, limiting the Pats to 60 yards rushing. Rhamondre Stevenson, who is a baller, had 54 yards on 10 carries. But the Bills stopped him when it counted. Rousseau and Edmunds stuffed Stevenson for no gain on a second-and-10 carry in the second. On third-and-long, Jones was over his head against this resurgent Buffalo defense.

“We knew we had to make them one-dimensional,” Edmunds said. “Whichever way that was. We pride ourselves on stopping the run. It’s not always pretty, but guys did a good job this week of taking accountability for it and practicing hard and making sure we took care of our assignments.”

Considering all they’d been through over the last two weeks, and the fact they were 0-2 in the division coming into the night, it might have been more impressive than the 47-17 humiliation in the playoffs. For one thing, they beat Bill Bellichick at his own game. 

Belichick essentially raised the white flag, punting on fourth-and-7 near midfield with his team down by 17 early in the fourth quarter and kicking a field goal with 1:57 left. It was as if Belichick was looking to keep the score down, the way the Packers and Aaron Rodgers did at Buffalo in late October.

It was a great way to start December and gear up for the home stretch. The Bills won their third game away from home in 12 days, improving to 9-3 and taking a half-game lead in the AFC East over the Dolphins, who are a 4-point underdog at the Niners on Sunday afternoon. 

“Guys have been fighting from the moment we got snowed in and having to go to Detroit twice,” said Poyer, who has played in eight games this season and won all of them. “It says a lot about the guys in that locker room, the culture we’ve been building here. Hats off to everyone on the team.

“Our D line was getting after them,” Poyer said, “like those guys have been doing all season. Greg (Rousseau) really stepped up. You can go down the line of guys that really stepped up in that game. Us on the back end, trying to give them an extra second to get to the quarterback.”

Buffalo Bills safety Jordan Poyer (21) during the second half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

It was the sort of defensive performance that will play well in December, and in postseason. You can beat the Chiefs that way. Allen proved he can engage Patrick Mahomes in a shootout in last year’s playoffs. But keeping Mahomes off the field with a persistent running game, and disrupting him with a strong D line, is a good formula— especially if Miller returns healthy.

There was a lot of national talk during the week that the Bills simply didn’t seem right. They had struggled to dominate for a month. Allen had been inconsistent. Miller was hurt. The betting line reflected it, moving a couple of points in New England’s favor. 

But there was a sense of the Bills finding themselves on Thursday night. At times, they seem to require a crisis to perform their best. Even more so, it was about a defense that has been compromised by injury for most of the season finally getting close to full health — at least by NFL standards. 

They’ll face more formidable offenses and quarterbacks than New England’s in the weeks ahead — Miami with Tua Tagovailoa, the Bengals with Joe Burrow, perhaps Mahomes or Lamar Jackson in the playoffs. But if they play the way they did Thursday, they’ll be tough to beat, even without Miller. 

“This was definitely big, man,” Edmunds said. “Our focus is on just ahead. We’re not looking back. There’s nothing we can do about those games. If you keep looking in the past, you’re going to trip going forward. Each week is its own entity and we’ve got to keep going. That’s what this game was about.

“We can celebrate this one for sure. But come next week, we got to flip the page and continue to get better, because it’s not going to get any easier.”