CHICAGO — The signs in the Buffalo Bills’ facility began to shift from “Playoff Caliber” to “Championship Caliber” this week.
Against the Chicago Bears, the Bills took a step forward and clinched the division, adding a much-needed layer of clothing in the freezing Chicago weather in the form of AFC East Champions T-shirts and hats with a 35-13 victory that wasn’ t as pretty as the score might indicate. The win improved the Bills to 12-3 and stretched the team’s winning streak to six games.
“I feel like there’s more out there,” defensive tackle Ed Oliver said. “I ain’t trying to think too far ahead, but I think there’s more out there, for sure. Last couple years we came up short, but I definitely think there’s more out there. There’s more hats and there’s more shirts and there’s bigger things out there, but this was definitely the stepping stone. If you don’t get this, you can’t get that.”
This is the Bills’ third straight AFC East title after winning zero division titles from 1996 to 2019.
The Bills clinched the AFC East with two weeks remaining, and if they win out to end the season — at the Cincinnati Bengals and vs. the New England Patriots — the AFC playoffs will go through Buffalo, New York. The team came into the weekend as the betting favorite to win the Super Bowl, per Caesars Sportsbook.
With the win, the Bills now have a 63% chance to secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC, per ESPN Analytics. Attaining home-field advantage would be big for this team, especially considering Buffalo has won all three of its home playoff games over the past two seasons.
The Bills won the game in temperatures that fell just below zero and with winds over 20 mph, but it is back in Buffalo where conditions have been significantly tougher with winds hitting over 70 mph and more than six feet of snow in parts of the city. The team will stay the night in Chicago due to a blizzard in Buffalo that has closed the city’s airport until at least 11 am ET on Monday. The plan is for the Bills to fly to Rochester, New York, and bus the approximately hour drive back home. Players and coaches were understanding of the need to stay.
“Yes, it’s a shame we can’t get home,” coach Sean McDermott said. “But there are a lot of people who have got it a lot worse than we do out there, including some people back home right now.
“… I think we get a lot of the attention, right, just because we’re out there and we’re in the public eye, but there is a lot of other people who are going through, just life. Forget just playing a sport, but just life. I mean, to get displaced and have to change schedules as a professional sports team is one thing, but when you’re struggling just on the everyday, life end of things, trying to make ends meet and how sometimes businesses are affected by these things. I think that’s proper perspective right now, especially around Christmas time.”
The defense played a significant role in the win, limiting the Bears’ league-leading rushing offense to 80 yards and 2.8 yards per carry. No Chicago drive was longer than 53 yards, and after a game-opening touchdown drive by the Bears, the Bills limited Chicago to two field goals on the drives that started in Bears territory.
The ability to stop the run came just a game after the Miami Dolphins rushed for 188 yards against the Bills at Highmark Stadium. Correcting the run defense was a priority coming into the game.
“We all understood what happened last week,” linebacker Tremaine Edmunds told ESPN. “We knew what we had to come out and do as far as getting better and improving on the things we had to improve on. And guys took responsibility and guys took accountability and we were able to have success stopping the run.”
The Bills’ running game saved the offense with 102 rushing yards in the third quarter, the team’s most in a single quarter since 2020 against the Broncos (110). The team finished with a season-high rushing total (254) and rushing touchdowns by Devin Singletary, James Cook and quarterback Josh Allen.
With his two passing touchdowns and rushing score, Allen has passed Dan Marino for the most passing and rushing touchdowns through a player’s first five seasons in NFL history (173).
Allen, however, made some questionable decisions in the game with two interceptions, his fifth multi-interception game of the season, tied with his rookie year (2018) for the most in his career. He finished completing 15 of 26 passes for 159 yards, two passing touchdowns and the two picks. He also ran for 41 yards and a touchdown on six carries.
“Obviously that first interception wasn’t a great decision,” Allen said. “And the second one, the wind just kind of was right in the face and I didn’t get the nose of the ball down, it just kind of sailed on our back there. I can live with the second one, the first one just a bad decision. I gotta find a way to get it to a checkdown there and move on and live to fight another day.”
But against Chicago, the mistakes didn’t make a big dent with the defense and rushing offense, despite being without starting center Mitch Morse, rising to the occasion. The win sets up a big matchup at the Cincinnati Bengals on “Monday Night Football” next week that will go a long way in helping to determine the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
“Have home playoff games, win the division, and now we’re just on to the next step,” tight end Dawson Knox said. “So, that’s the standard we want to create for this franchise. So, thankfully it’s nothing new to us, so we want to just keep building on what we got right now.”