Sean McDermott tempered expectations Monday with his Buffalo Bills on the verge of their first AFC East crown in 25 years.
The Bills are facing the ramifications of back-to-back victories in primetime, one of which came against an opponent that was undefeated just two weeks ago. Colin Cowherd puffed a cigar on social media and called them Super Bowl contenders. Good Morning Football's Kyle Brandt stirred up hype for a rematch with the Chiefs.
McDermott stuck to his guns. If the Bills do in fact achieve their ultimate goal, they'll do so with the week-by-week approach that trickles down from their head coach.
"The only thing we've earned at this point is all that noise," he said. "And we've got to block that out, honestly."
It is a new situation, even for a team that has made the playoffs in two of the past three seasons. The 2017 team made the postseason on the strength of a last-minute drive on the final Sunday of the season. Last year's group faced outside questions of experience and schedule strength.
The fact that his team is being referred to as a bonafide contender with three weeks remaining is a sign of its maturation, but McDermott is quick to remind that the NFL can humble you in a hurry. Maintaining a healthy respect for each opponent is what got the Bills to this point and what will carry them moving forward.
"We're dealing with young men and young women, who, you know, some of them are new to this," McDermott said. "You're talking about the best of the best, so every week you've got to go back and reset, start all over again. But that's where the process comes in.
"You've got to love that, man. You've got to love the preparation. You've got to love putting in the time and the work to get yourself to where we were with the outcome last night. That's why it makes it so special when you can win those games because you know the hard work that went into it."
The balance from here on out will be enjoying the victories while still staying in the moment. McDermott describes the team's culture as one in which players can be themselves while still operating within the team structure.
Sunday was a perfect example. A contest that evolved into a sideline dance party after the defense all but secured a victory with a fourth-quarter takeaway also featured postgame remarks from a 22-year-old captain reminding the group not to become complacent.
"Tremaine Edmunds - one of our captains - circled it up and brought it back full circle like this: We're not complacent," Stefon Diggs said following a performance that saw him tie the Bills record for receptions in a season.
"There's a lot more football left and we're chasing bigger goals as far as getting back, getting to work and getting everybody's back. He said, 'dogs on three.' It really shows you the mindset that these guys have and everybody around. We're starving for more. We want more. We expect more from ourselves."
There will be smaller goals along the way. The Bills can clinch their first AFC East title since 1995 with a victory over Denver next Saturday, according to The New York Times' playoff simulator, a feat that defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier reiterated was a goal coming into the season. Winning a playoff game would mark an achievement that last occurred in 1995, as well.
The Bills will take them as they come – for now, it's onto Denver. But first, a few notes to wrap up Week 14.
A strong outing from Williams
Daryl Williams has become a fixture at right tackle after joining the Bills on a one-year deal during the offseason, having started all 13 games to this point. He faced a significant test Sunday against T.J. Watt, a defensive player of the year contender who led the NFL in sacks in QB hits.
Williams was called for a false start on Buffalo's first offensive drive and saw Watt force Josh Allen into an errant throw on the following possession. By the end of the day, however, Williams had kept the damage on the stat sheet to a minimum, holding Watt without at least a share of a sack for just the third time this season.
"There's a couple plays he wants back," McDermott said. "I thought he held his own. Most of the time for offensive line play it's a sum of the parts. I thought we got off to a little bit of a slow start but we played our way through it and found our footing and the result was what it was."
Williams' day was a microcosm for the Buffalo offense as a whole, which handled Pittsburgh's pressure better as the game wore on. The Bills offense was held off the board until a Tyler Bass field goal late in the second quarter but went on to put up 17 points in the second half.
Bills center Mitch Morse credited the second-half surge to the offense collectively catching its breath. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said it was an 11-man effort.
"They were still pass rushing pretty good," Daboll said. "It's not like we just stopped their pass rush. It's a pretty good pass rush. We got the ball out. We blocked them long enough to where we could get it to some of our guys. Josh got into a little rhythm."
Snap counts at linebacker and corner
Two games into his return from injured reserve, Matt Milano saw his snap count increase from 19 to 28, which represented a 47-percent share of the defensive total. It was the linebacker's highest count since Week 3.
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said the increase in responsibilities is a sign Milano is continuing to progress to full health. So was the linebacker's stat sheet, with one sack, two QB hits, and one pass defended.
"He had an impact," Frazier said. "He had some hurries on the quarterback, some hits on the quarterback, really did a number on their running backs when he was blitzing. So, it was really, really encouraging to have him back because he's one of those splash play type players who can make the big play for you."
At corner, meanwhile, the Bills split snaps between Levi Wallace and Josh Norman at the position opposite Tre'Davious White. Norman finished with 32 snaps compared to 25 for Wallace, though both players left their mark. Wallace ultimately sealed the win with his fourth-quarter interception.
"We were evaluating things and trying to see what could best help our defense, what could best help Levi. Just realizing that Josh was finally healthy … [We decided to] give him a chance to get out there and see how he does," Frazier said.
"I think it helped both he and Levi and it honestly helped our defense. Levi ends up coming up with one of the big plays of the game last night. So, that was the thinking, just looking at where Josh was and what was going on with Levi. It really worked out well for us."
The final drive
Asked afterward what he was most proud of from the victory, Sean McDermott singled out Buffalo's last drive of the game. The Bills ran 13 plays over a span of 7:11, including six carries for Zack Moss, eliminating any chance of a Steelers comeback.
"Loved it," McDermott said. "Loved it. I don't care if you're a pass first guy or run first guy, that's just fun to watch right there. That's why we practice the way we do."