Jerry Hughes became aware of Bills Mafia not in the cold throes of the playoffs, but in the low-stakes warmth of the preseason.
It was August 2013, and Hughes had been acquired in a trade with the Indianapolis Colts during the offseason. He recalls arriving at the stadium with a group of fellow newcomers for the team's walkthrough ahead of their exhibition game against the Minnesota Vikings and seeing a line of RVs stretching down Abbott Road to Southwestern Boulevard.
The sight lit such a fire, then-coach Doug Marrone had to calm Hughes down before walkthrough.
"We were out here in walkthrough; we were ready to go, and it didn't start for another hour," Hughes recalled in September. "We were throwing the football around, we were having our flag football game, Kyle (Williams) and I. He was like, 'Hey, just relax a little bit.'"
Hughes – perhaps more than any other Bills player – can empathize with those fans. He was there when the Bills' playoff drought stretched to 17 seasons. He was there when it ended. He has been there for every step of the franchise's turnaround tour, from Houston to Kansas City.
But even Hughes, the longest-tenured Bills player – who, with no remaining years on his contract, could be preparing for his final home game in Orchard Park – cannot quite envision what the scene will be like this Saturday. For a variety of reasons, Buffalo's Wild Card matchup with the New England Patriots will be unlike any Bills game in 26 years.
There will be the fans, first and foremost. While the limited-capacity crowds of around 6,700 did an admiral job of creating playoff atmospheres for last year's wins over Indianapolis and Baltimore, this will be the first postseason game played in front of a full audience in Orchard Park since a Divisional Round loss to Jacksonville in 1996.
"I don't even know what the atmosphere's going to be like," defensive tackle Harrison Phillips said. "I don't think anybody on this team has ever played a home playoff game here in a full crowd. I can only imagine what it's going to be like here. I'm so grateful."
Hughes was reminded of his early years with the franchise, when since-retired team captains like Eric Wood and Fred Jackson spoke about envisioning a day like Saturday.
"You know, the emotions and feelings of what that would be like," Hughes said. "And then for me to actually live it, it's going to be surreal.
"I know our fans, the Mafia is going to be crazy come Saturday just because it's a playoff game in Buffalo. I'm going to try to keep my emotions under control, under check just because I understand where we are and as an organization. But it's going to be a lot of fun."
The cold will be unlike anything fans or players have experienced in Highmark Stadium in at least 27 years. The temperature at kickoff is forecasted to be six degrees (with a windchill that will make it feel like negative four).
Buffalo's win over the Los Angeles Raiders in the 1994 divisional round, played in zero-degree weather, stands as the coldest playoff game in team history. The lowest temperature for a regular-season game in Orchard Park was nine degrees in a 1993 game against the New York Jets.
The unusual forecast has wrought unusual suggestions. Former NFL linebacker Bart Scott suggested on ESPN's "Get Up!" that players use Viagra to improve circulation – advice that has since been shot down by medical professionals as well as by tight end Dawson Knox.
Hughes plans to take a more conventional approach.
"Take off the pants, get in some shorts, you know, enjoy that weather really embrace it," he said. "Get your feet in the earth. Let your toes tickle that cold soil. Just enjoy it. It's going to be cold on Saturday. But, you know, with the Mafia in that stadium, getting loud, it's going to feel warm."
The temperature's effect on game play is another storyline worth watching. Sean McDermott revealed during his weekly appearance on WGR 550 that the Bills froze footballs for their indoor practices, one of the ways they tried to prepare for the conditions.
"Even growing up when you're playing in the backyard and it's cold – I'm sure in Buffalo for a lot of people out there that's the case this time of year trying to go out there and just play touch football or tackle or whatever – that ball gets slick because it is so firm," McDermott said. "Just trying to make sure, just like anything, that we try and adapt our guys to that as much as possible."
The cold weather did not deter the passing game the last time temperatures dipped into single digits. Jim Kelly completed 27 of 37 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns in that 1994 win over the Raiders, the fourth-most passing yards of his playoff career.
Buffalo's opponent will be the other anomaly come Saturday. The Bills and Patriots – on opposite sides of a rivalry that has historically leaned lopsidedly to one end or the other – have not met in the playoffs during the Super Bowl era. Their lone playoff meeting was in the 1963 AFL Divisional Round, the Bills' first postseason game ever.
It sets up a rubber match between two teams that jostled for AFC East supremacy all season long. The Patriots famously won despite only attempting three passes on a windy night in Orchard Park in Week 13. The Bills answered with one of their best offensive games of the season three weeks later in Foxborough en route to a second straight division title.
Defensive tackle Ed Oliver likened three meetings in just over a month to playing driveway basketball against a brother the same age. The teams know each other's tendencies. Adjustments – and perhaps physicality – will make the difference.
"It's just going to be an old-school slobber-knocker," Hughes said. "We've seen them two times this year. The third time is like Ali said. It's that whole Thrilla in Manilla type thing. It's going to be fun. The ice is going to be there. The cold is going to be there. It's going to be Buffalo Bills football.
"So. we're going to need to be mentally tough, it's going to be physical. We're excited for the challenge."