ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — It took four months and a dramatic turn of events on one of the final plays of the NFL’s regular season for coach Sean McDermott and the Buffalo Bills to finally — and succinctly — put to rest any suggestion the team had any intention of tanking last summer.
“I’ll let you guys handle that,” McDermott said, referring to reporters on Monday. “We’re moving on after today to the first round of the playoffs.”
And that’s all that matters to the first-year coach, who took the high road rather than an “I told you so” approach some 18 hours after the Bills clinched the AFC’s sixth and final playoff berth and ended a 17-year postseason drought — the longest in North America’s four major professional sports.
McDermott never gave into the doubters and instead preached a simple “Trust The Process” message that resonated with his players.
“Every season’s a little bit different. Every season you go through tests and challenges,” McDermott said.
“It’s going to try to pull you apart. It’s going to test you, and it’s going to test your mental toughness,” he added. “And our players hung in there.”
Rather than packing up, as 17 of Buffalo’s preceding teams did on the day after the regular-season finale, these Bills returned home to a jubilant reception early Monday.
They were greeted at Buffalo Niagara International Airport by some 400 chanting fans , who braved 2-degree temperatures after Buffalo beat Miami 22-16 and clinched its playoff berth once Baltimore gave up a last-minute touchdown in a 31-27 loss to Cincinnati.
McDermott is even considering sending the Bengals a gift — chicken wings, perhaps — as a thank you for Andy Dalton hitting Tyler Boyd for a 49-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-12 with 44 seconds left.
And now, Buffalo (9-7) is moving on in preparing to play at AFC South champion Jacksonville (10-6) on Sunday.
McDermott rewarded his players by giving them the next two days off, before the team returns to practice Wednesday.
They earned it.
Buffalo overcame exceedingly low expectations following a major yearlong roster overhaul which led to the departures of numerous high-priced stars.
Among the players traded were receiver Sammy Watkins (to the Los Angeles Rams) and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus (Jacksonville).
The Bills’ secondary was retooled as was their group of receivers, leaving the team to open the season with 24 holdovers from 2016.
On the field, the Bills overcame the elements by beating Indianapolis 13-7 in overtime amid white-out conditions on Dec. 10.
And the team failed to unravel when McDermott’s decision to start Nathan Peterman backfired after the rookie quarterback threw five interceptions in the first half of a 54-24 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Nov. 19.
Buffalo could face even more adversity with running back LeSean McCoy’s status uncertain after hurting his right ankle against Miami.
What stood out to McDermott was how the Bills responded to the loss to the Chargers the following week by snapping a three-game skid with a 16-10 win at Kansas City.
“If you’re going to put a landmark moment for this first year, that was probably one of them,” he said of a win that improved Buffalo’s record to 6-5.
“That goes back to the resiliency of this football team and really what this city is all about … that no matter what people say about us, we’re going to compete like crazy.”
McDermott needed no more validation of how his team has captured the imagination of its supporters than witnessing the scene at the airport. Fans waved Bills flags and placards, sang the team’s “Shout!” song and chanted “Let’s Go Buffalo.”
“I’ve been around a couple of playoffs or two in my 20 years around the NFL, and that was unmatched,” he said. “This type of welcome home just speaks volumes about our city and our fans.”
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said the staff and players couldn’t initially see the fans while de-boarding the plane, but could hear them.
“We were like, ‘This is incredible.’ It just kind of brings home what this means to Buffalo, to western New York,” Frazier said. “It just pushes you on to want to keep it going and just show them how much we appreciate their support.”
Rookie tackle Dion Dawkins was stunned by the reception,
“It’s 2 degrees out here and they’re screaming their tails off,” Dawkins said. “This is just flat-out unbelievable.”
Funny, some were saying the same about the Bills’ playoff chances four months ago, too.
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