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How the Bills found brotherhood amidst adversity

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While many teams are preparing for the start of the playoffs where the stakes are greater and the pressure to win is at its highest, the Bills have been in this mode since Week 14.

Buffalo repped a 'win or go home' mentality because they had to run the table to punch their ticket to the postseason. Being able to have a playoff mindset in their last five wins is in part due to the identity the Bills locker room formed when they began to turn their 6-6 season around.

"They're a resilient group," Sean McDermott said of his players. "They really are. The resolve that they've shown through the course of the year and beyond the Denver game, but even before that. Every season has its own signature, takes on its own life. And I think the key is just to continue to take it one week at a time, continue to learn, grow, improve. And when you can do that, you're going to give yourself the best chance moving forward."

This resilient group found a way to do exactly that — learn from their mistakes, grow during practices, and show that improvement on the field when it mattered.

Now, with a seat at the table and their fourth straight AFC East title secured, this team is feeling closer than ever and ready for the journey ahead.

"You want to peak at the right time," quarterback Josh Allen said. "I think with this football team, we still got our best ball to play, but we're trending in the right direction. We're very fortunate to be playing another game. There's a lot of teams that aren't in the playoffs, a lot of guys that aren't practicing this week, so this is a very inspired group right now."

The inspiration this group has created comes from the adversity they overcame during the middle of the season.

"We went through a couple hardships as far as losing games," defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said. "I think over that time, over that struggle, we kind of figured out who we are and developed as individuals and as a team. I think it's paying off right now in the long run."

Those struggles were losing five of eight games from Weeks 5 through 12. And because of that, their playoff chances dropped to 15% after losing to the Eagles (New York Times playoff predictor).

When the outside said it looked bleak and when many counted them out, they turned to their culture. And that started with their head coach.

"I think the biggest thing overall is that we have an environment here," McDermott said. "And it's not perfect. It's not for everyone, quite honestly. It allows for players to be open and be vulnerable. And, say the word love and really lean into one another, support one another, encourage one another."

Through the losses, the team really leaned into supporting and loving one another.

"You get closer with guys due to adversity," wide receiver Stefon Diggs said. "You get closer with your teammates in general when things aren't going right."

"The team became more of a team," left tackle Dion Dawkins said on how they came together. "It was all of the dinners, all of the hanging outs, all of the UNO games, the card games, cornhole, all of it. It was a little bit of all of that, guys were meshing together closer.

"And we were understanding that we can have all of the talent in the world, but when you play for your brother, like genuinely play for your brother, we're an unstoppable group."

The players started to show belief in being unstoppable by vocalizing it to each other.

"We all believe we are the best," cornerback Rasul Douglas said. "So, it's like every time we go out there, every series, every snap, we communicate, and we talk, telling each other, 'Yo, you the best bro.' Like, they're telling you, 'You the best.' It's just that feedback that we get from each other, like, 'Come on. Let's go.' And I think that's what we all need is that little boost and spark."

"It means the world when you have someone next to you that believes in you, that encourages you and cheers with you when you have success," defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa said. "It means the world to you as a player and it makes it a lot easier to go out on the field and do what you got to do."

McDermott noticed his team doing exactly that during Week 17's game against the Patriots right after Allen converted a 3rd & 3 with two minutes left in the game.

"Josh ran for the first down and you saw defensive players, special teams, players actually out on the field encouraging one another, challenging some of the offensive guys," McDermott shared. "And I've seen that with the offense and special teams as well going the other way. So I think that really says a lot about who these guys are and the identity that's been formed over the last six games, and you don't see that all the time."

Wide receiver and returner Deonte Harty felt that love as he ran back to the sideline and celebrated with his team after returning a punt 96 yards to tie the game in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins with the AFC East title on the line.

"That just shows you what this team is all about, one close group" Harty shared. "It's a family here. I always saw it from the outside looking in when I was in New Orleans. I was looking at this team, like I want to be a part of them. So to be able to actually be a part of it, it's a surreal feeling."

One feeling a true family emulates is love, a word this group isn't afraid to say because of what they've been through together.

"I would say it's a lot of up and down battles where the world kind of counted us out," Dawkins shared. "We only had each other to kind of like lean on…we kind of closed the door to the outside world and just depended on each other, which is why when we say 'love', we mean it because we are literally all we have."

There's a lot of love for Buffalo's quarterback in the locker room. Allen led the NFL in total touchdowns (44) and offensive yards (4,830) this season and is another part of the equation as to why this team has taken a 15% chance at making the playoffs into becoming the No. 2 seed.

While McDermott has set the tone and environment, it's up to leaders like Allen to walk the walk and pass the message throughout the locker room. The HC has loved watching his QB lead the team.

"That's been fun to watch, quite honestly, just guys really sharing their true personalities and their love for one another," McDermott said of seeing Allen lead. "It's been fun to watch that develop over the last couple of weeks. And Josh driving that in particular and his urgency, his vulnerability, his leadership. Usually as Josh goes, we go."

Over the last five games, Allen leads the NFL with six rushing touchdowns and ties for the lead with nine red zone touchdowns. His team has followed in his footsteps.

The offense is averaging 148.8 rushing yards per game (5th in the NFL), converting third downs 50% of the time (2nd) and holding onto the ball for an average of more than 33 minutes per game (2nd) since Week 14. The defense is allowing an average of just 16.8 points per game (5th), 276.6 total yards per game (4th), a 66 passer rating (1st) and has allowed just two passing touchdowns in the last five games (1st).

"I think it's just the love and the energy that we have for each other right now," Allen said of why they're playing at a high level. "The trust and communication that we have in practice, throughout the week and in our game plans. And obviously, seeing guys make plays on the field – everybody, we're happy to see our guys make plays. There's nobody not happy.

"We're rooting each other on. We're each other's biggest fans in this locker room. We just want to win football games and that's the main sense and the main feeling that we have in this facility right now is do whatever it takes to get it done."

Added linebacker Terrel Bernard: "We know who we are. We know who we need to be. And I think if that team shows up, we can play with anybody."

As the group continues with their playoff mindset built by resiliency and togetherness, they'll take on a Steelers team who has also found success as of late.

Pittsburgh is riding a three-game win streak in which their quarterback Mason Rudolph is averaging close to 10 yards per pass attempt and completing more than 74% of his passes. They also have two players in running back Najee Harris and wide receiver George Pickens who have each averaged more than 100 yards per game in their last three.

Buffalo knows they'll have to put up their best fight to keep the season alive. And as they do that, they'll keep the love they have for each other at the forefront.

"It's not about the self," Dawkins said. "It's about the team…everybody is looking to the left and to the right. And they're saying, 'I got you.' And that's really all a brotherhood is, and that's what we got here in Buffalo."

Scroll to see photos from the Buffalo Bills Super Wild Card practice at Highmark Stadium as the team prepares to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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