ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Bills clinched their second playoff berth of this millennium and fourth 10-win season in the past 20 years by winning in playoff atmospheres.
The Week 15 win-and-you're-in road test against the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-6) had all the fixings of a postseason matchup and was the Bills' second nationally televised game in three weeks. They passed the test and hope it's a preview of what's to come.
There was little celebration in Buffalo's locker room after the prime-time win because another tough road test awaits Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET, NFL Network) against the New England Patriots (11-3). After a big win against Dallas (7-7) on Thanksgiving Day and a tight home loss against AFC-leading Baltimore (12-2) the next week, these Bills (10-4) have shown they have a formula that can work in January -- great defense and an improving running game.
Buffalo held the Steelers to 229 yards and just 10 points, forcing five turnovers and five three-and-out drives in what essentially amounted to the nation's introduction to the league's best defense outside of New England and San Francisco.
Buffalo's defense ranks No. 3 behind those of the Patriots and 49ers in yards allowed per game (291.9) and No. 2 behind the Patriots' in points allowed (15.9) heading into Saturday's matchup. New England owns the tiebreaker with Buffalo based on their records against common opponents, so the Patriots can capture their 11th straight AFC East title by winning Saturday or in Week 17 at home against Miami (3-11).
Bills coach Sean McDermott, in his third year with the team, said he hopes there is a new standard in place for the franchise -- a standard that begins by not dwelling on any achievement.
"When we came to Buffalo, one of the things we wanted to do was to challenge [for the division] and to do it every year -- sustained success," McDermott said. "And I think that this is an opportunity ... to take another step as a football team."
The Bills lost at home to the Patriots in Week 4, surprisingly putting up the most yards the Patriots have allowed all season. But they also turned the ball over four times and gave up a touchdown on a blocked punt in the 16-10 slopfest.
Buffalo is better prepared for the rematch. Running back Devin Singletary, who missed the team's first matchup, ranks fourth in the NFL in rushing yards since Week 11 and should be a focal point of the Bills' offense come Saturday. Josh Allen, who threw three interceptions in Week 4, possesses a touchdown-to-turnover ratio better than 4-1 (21-5) since.
Although Buffalo has slim hopes of winning its first division championship since 1995, the Patriots will be desperate to win Saturday -- they hold the AFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs by one game over Kansas City (10-4) -- so if the Bills conquer them in Foxborough, it could signal a changing of the guard in the AFC East.
The Bills are on schedule according to the plan McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane put in place in 2017. Buffalo is a playoff contender -- but there is still work to be done.
"This league is funny, once you think you've arrived, you get your butt kicked," McDermott said. "With all due respect, honestly, to the work that has been put in, we just have to continue to grind and continue to work and stay with that humble and hungry approach."