Josh Allen is generally cautious with his words, content to channel the dry maxims of his head coach, Sean McDermott. Allen would sooner turtle in the open field than utter anything controversial in a press conference.
But when I asked him how it felt to know the Bills were now in control of their own destiny in the AFC playoff race, Allen got his back up a little.
“Obviously, we were written off a few weeks ago,” he said on Wednesday in his weekly session with the local media in the fieldhouse.
Allen caught himself. He checked down to his second read, the customary talking points about going 1-0 every week, controlling what they can control, putting their best foot forward and being the best versions of themselves.
“Next man up and all the cliche things,” he said. “But it really is. We’re focused on the next game and that’s it.”
It’s easy to poke fun at the coach-speak. But how can you argue with success, when it’s worked so well for McDermott and his squad over the years? Every team has its flaws, but the Bills have demonstrated a remarkable ability to rally from difficult circumstances in seasons.
At times, it seems this team needs a crisis, or the perceived doubts of the outside world, to perform its best. History shows these Bills tend to rise up and go on a roll after the most horrifying and potentially soul crushing of defeats.
Two years ago, they lost at Arizona on a last-second Hail Mary pass from Kyler Murray to DeAndre Hopkins. They won their last six regular-season games and two more to reach the AFC title game against the Chiefs.
Last season, they lost in overtime at Tampa Bay on a blown coverage. It dropped them to 7-6, in danger of missing the playoffs. Inspired by a rousing comeback in that game, the Bills again ran the table and won the AFC East.
Four weeks ago at Highmark Stadium, they suffered a harrowing overtime loss to the Vikings, blowing a late lead when Allen fumbled the ball away at his goal-line in the closing seconds. Suddenly, they were in third place in the division.
A major snowstorm caused the next game to be moved to Detroit. Crisis. Undaunted, they won three games in 12 days to get to 9-3. Last weekend, the Chiefs and Dolphins both lost, putting the Bills back atop the conference race.
More bad news arrived on Tuesday, when the Bills learned that star defensive end Von Miller was done for the season after doctors in Texas discovered that he has suffered a torn ACL during exploratory surgery on his injured knee.
The players were devastated by the news. Like the public, they thought Miller would be able to return for the playoffs, at the least. But after all they’ve been through, they’re conditioned to solider on in the face of such adversity.
“That’s the game we play,” said safety Jordan Poyer. “Von would be the first to tell you that. It’s part of the game. Being able to have other guys with opportunities right in front of them, and those guys will be ready to go.
“It’s a cliche,” Poyer said. “Next man up.”
Miller will be missed. He was signed as the missing piece of the championship puzzle, a pass rusher to disrupt the top quarterbacks — Patrick Mahomes, above all — in the biggest moments. But he’s only one piece. The Bills were 13 seconds from reaching the AFC title game without him last season.
They’re a proud, resilient team. I imagine they’re a little chafed by the notion that they can’t win the Super Bowl without Miller – or Odell Beckham Jr., for that matter. Based on past history, they have to be confident that they can run the table again and claim the top seed, home-field and a first-round bye.
“Being in control is a great feeling,” Poyer said. “But at the same time, we’ve got some tough division games coming up. This is a good Jets team coming here. They beat us last time. It’s good to have control of your own destiny, but we’ve got to continue to have that one-day-at-a time, one-game-at-a-time approach and handle business this weekend in order for it to stay that way.”
Allen agreed that the memory of turning things around and running the table in recent seasons will serve this Bills team well in the stretch run.
“Yeah, I think you can say it’s like situations,” Allen said. “Having the carryover that we’ve had from year to year with the guys in our locker room, the leaders we have in our locker room.
“We feel like we’ve been in situations like that before. There’s still a lot of work to do, a lot of things that we need to work on. We still got to win some more football games. These ones in December matter, the ones in January matter, and the one in February matters.”
McDermott gave me a blank stare when I asked if his guys would benefit from having run the table after difficult losses in recent years. He softly uttered the First Commandment of sports cliches:
“One game at a time.”
Again, the team buys in, so don’t quibble. Veteran center Mitch Morse, a cerebral, contemplative soul, had a simple explanation for the Bills’ ability to hit their stride after horrifying setbacks.
“Those just happen around the point where we as a team want to execute at the highest level,” Morse said. “Around Thanksgiving is when you want to separate yourself and play your best ball.
“It just happens that all those seem to coincide with that time frame. Stuff like that reinvigorates a team — unfortunately. We’ll have some more tribulations coming up here soon, and we’ll have to bounce back from those.”
Poyer laughed when informed that Allen had said the Bills were written off a few weeks ago. “Probably not the last time either,” he said.
“Look, that’s the league,” Poyer said. “That’s the NFL. I’ve been in this league a long time. One week you win, everybody says you’re going to the Super Bowl. Next week you lose, ‘Oh gosh, what’s wrong with this team?’
“You look too far ahead, or you look too far back, you’ll miss what’s right in front of you.”
This is Poyer’s sixth season in Buffalo. He knocked on wood when reminded of the team’s amazing capacity for pulling it together late in regular seasons.
“It’s a resilient group of guys, man,” he said. “Bunch of guys who come to work every day and play for each other. There’s no egos, nobody pointing fingers when stuff goes wrong. We’ve been hit in the mouth enough to be able to bounce back.
“See, that’s a huge part of the game to me, being able to move on from something bad that happened in a game, or in a season,” Poyer added. “I think the teams that are able to handle those adverse moments in the right way, those are the teams that you’re going to see in late January, and February.”