Josh Allen grew up like most young football players, with dreams of hoisting a Lombardi Trophy and celebrating a Super Bowl championship on stage with his teammates.
For most, it's just that – a dream. But the AFC Championship backdrop behind Allen as he spoke Wednesday served as a reminder of just how close the 24-year-old quarterback has come to manifesting that vision with the Bills, now one victory away from a trip to Tampa.
That is, unless you ask Allen himself.
"We're a long way away from that point," Allen said. "I hate thinking about stuff like that. Our goal is Sunday night against the Kansas City Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium. We know it's going to be loud, we know it's going to be a dogfight. It's a really good team we're playing, and we've got to go and try to get a W."
Allen and his teammates have maintained the same week-to-week mentality that got them this far as they prepare for Kansas City, rightfully refusing to look past the reigning Super Bowl champions. The quarterback spoke Wednesday about recognizing the stakes without letting them alter his preparation.
"I've played in a few big games and as we go on here, every game is a bigger game than the last one," he said. "You know, it's still the game of football. We don't need to reinvent anything on our offense. We've just got to go out there and try to execute a game plan and try to be the best versions of ourselves we can be."
BuffaloBills.com reached out to three quarterbacks who punched their own tickets to the Super Bowl to discuss their experiences and asked how they approached the penultimate game of the playoffs.
Kurt Warner made his first NFC Championship appearance with the "Greatest Show on Turf" St. Louis Rams in 1999. That team would go on to win Super Bowl XXXIV. Warner won two more conference titles during his Hall-of-Fame career, again with the Rams in 2001 and with the Arizona Cardinals in 2008.
For Warner, the pressure of the NFC Championship may have been even greater than that of the Super Bowl itself.
"You don't want to get to this moment in a championship game and lose," Warner said. "If you lose in the Super Bowl, it is what it is. You played the last game. You gave yourself an opportunity to win it all. But nobody wants to be the one kind of left on the alter and say, 'Ah, we were right there.' Because nobody's going to remember that.
"So, you really want to play your best in this moment. I think it ramps up every round to this point and then when you get to the Super Bowl – you understand the stakes, obviously, of winning a Super Bowl, but there's a much more calming effect to that because you know there's no other games."
Drew Bledsoe felt the difference during the buildup to the 1996 AFC Championship, which he won with the New England Patriots. He recalls feeling a heightened sense of external attention and an internal sense of privilege in being one of the last four teams standing.
"What you really have to do is you have to get through the first few plays of the game," Bledsoe said. "Once you get through the first few plays of the game, whether it's the AFC Championship game or whether it's the Super Bowl, once you get through the first few plays of the game then you're just playing football again.
"But those first few plays, you've got some nerves. You've got some sense of the importance of the game and they get more important the farther you go."
That script doesn't always go according to plan. Warner and his explosive Rams offense were two-touchdown favorites over the defensively stout Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1999. Warner's very first pass of the game was a screen that was tipped at the line and intercepted.
The Rams trailed that game, 6-5, early in the fourth quarter. Warner had thrown three interceptions. It was the St. Louis defense that kept the team in the game long enough for Warner to connect on a game-winning, 30-yard strike to Ricky Proehl with less than five minutes to play.
"That's what I tell a lot of guys when I talk to them when they're in these moments for the first time is just to realize it's not all going to be perfect," Warner said.
"Even in these big moments, there will be ebbs and flows. There will be highs and lows. Very seldom does everything go in your favor. And it's the ability to weather those storms and not panic and allow the game to continue to come to you or be ready to make that play regardless of what's happened."
Warner's Rams and this year's Bills have something in common. As pointed out by @The33rdTeamFB on Twitter, they are two of four teams in NFL history to rush for less than 40 yards in a playoff victory (Buffalo rushed for 32 last week against Baltimore). Two of those teams – the 1999 Rams and the 2014 Patriots – went on to win the Super Bowl.
And, like the 1999 Rams, the Bills had to scrap out a playoff win without their usual passing attack. Buffalo's defense held the Ravens to just three points in the Divisional Round and came up with the game-changing play when Taron Johnson returned an interception 101 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter.
Allen – who has spoken throughout the year about learning to take what's given following a playoff lost to Houston last year – did not finish with his typically gaudy stat line. He also never turned the ball over, trusting the team around him to ultimately find away.
"The good news is Josh seems to be a really cool customer and I don't get the sense that any of these situations, I don't ever get the sense that the situation is bigger than he is," Bledsoe said. "From that standpoint, I don't worry about him very much. I really like the Bills' chances."
Phil Simms said he never felt increased pressure in any playoff game, including the 1986 NFC Championship that sent his New York Giants to Super Bowl XXI. That game was played in the Meadowlands with 40-mph winds, yet Simms engineered three scoring drives in the first half of what ended as a 17-0 victory.
Simms believes the sheer responsibility placed on quarterbacks in today's game should help keep them in the moment.
"You can't think ahead or be thinking, 'Oh, if we win the game we go to the Super Bowl,'" he said. "So, I would think it's that way. I know that about Patrick Mahomes. I think with Josh Allen, he's so involved in every game that there's no way he's going to the bench going, 'Hey man, if we win …'
"He's going to the bench going, 'Man, that play just happened, let me learn,' and then you go out and do it. I don't think nerves or look ahead is going to be a problem here."
The four quarterbacks remaining represent a dream storyline for the unbiased football fan. In the NFC, it's a matchup between two all-time greats in Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. In the AFC, Allen and Mahomes perhaps best represent the future of the position, two young super-athletes who possess the size, arm strength, and mobility to turn any play into a highlight-reel moment.
Warner entered this season wondering if Mahomes might develop a stranglehold on the AFC the way Brady had for so many years. Allen's ascension has him re-thinking that position.
"This becomes a part of everybody's history, when you play against the greats," Warner said. "Can you match the greats? Can you beat the greats in these moments? This is obviously still early in Josh's career. This isn't gonna define his career in any way from a negative standpoint if they lose. But this could be huge for his career if he wins."
Someday, there might be time to reflect on that. For now, Allen is keeping the picture small.
"I'm just trying to be the best version of myself, I'm not trying to compare to the other three guys who are arguably some of the best guys to ever play the game," he said.
"It's good company to in for sure, but I'm just focused on what I can do for the Buffalo Bills and how I can help this offense move the ball and put us in good situations."