ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The moments don’t get much bigger than this.
A chance to host the Kansas City Chiefs in the playoffs after losing at Arrowhead Stadium in consecutive postseasons (2020 and 2021) is here for the Buffalo Bills. The significance can’t be overstated. The phrase «13 seconds» needs no context amongst Bills Mafia.
Sunday’s game (6:30 p.m. ET, CBS) is an opportunity to put that 2021 game fully in the rearview mirror, for the defense to prove it can stop quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the postseason and advance to the AFC Championship for only the second time since 1993.
To come away with a win, the Bills must continue to work around missing pieces due to injury — a reality they’ve dealt with all season.
Only two defensive starters started all 17 games for the Bills — nickel corner Taron Johnson and middle linebacker Terrel Bernard. But Johnson and Bernard, two of the team’s most consistent players, are questionable for Sunday because of injury. The team lost two key starters for the season in Weeks 4 and 5 — cornerback Tre’Davious White and 2022 first-team All-Pro outside linebacker Matt Milano.
«Not that I can recall,» assistant head coach and defensive line coach Eric Washington said when asked if he’s seen a unit with more injuries. «… The coaches have done a really good job of making sure that everyone in our respective meeting rooms, everyone’s plugged in. … it’s also given us an opportunity to really identify the character that we have.»
In yet another test during a season full of them, the banged-up Bills defense will have to stop Mahomes and the Chiefs ahead of significant decisions about the unit to be made in the offseason.
«[This defense is] very resilient. It’s just something that’s in their fabric,» coach Sean McDermott said. «… It’s in their DNA and it’s become our team’s DNA really with next man up. We’ll figure it out and … I think you can accomplish a lot when you have that type of attitude.»
Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer have started 92 games together since 2017, by the far the most games by an NFL safety duo during that stretch, per Elias Sports Bureau. (Broncos’ Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson are second at 62.) They are two of seven current Bills who were on McDermott’s first team in Buffalo in 2017.
Hyde, 33, who is in the final year of his contract with the Bills, played in 14 regular-season games in 2023 while dealing with a stinger after undergoing September 2022 neck surgery. Poyer, 32, was brought back to the Bills in free agency in 2023 on a team-friendly two-year deal. The two captains have been part of this defense for every step of the Bills’ rise over the years, but how much longer they remain is a question for the offseason.
«To the defense, I mean, I think they’re our heartbeat,» cornerback Dane Jackson said. «They’re our leaders, the guys that we look to step up. To make those big plays, cause we know they can, and we trust them to lead us.»
The Bills don’t have an obvious next generation at safety. Backup Taylor Rapp, who is out vs. the Chiefs with a calf injury, is set to become a free agent. Backup Damar Hamlin, who appeared in five regular-season games and was active in Monday’s wild-card win over the Steelers, will be in the final year of his rookie contract next season.
At cornerback, the team acquired Rasul Douglas just before the trade deadline to compensate for the loss of White to a torn right Achilles suffered in Week 4. Douglas made quite the impression with four interceptions, including a pick-six, eight passes defensed and two fumble recoveries, but is questionable for Sunday with a knee injury.
Douglas is under contract through 2024, which complicates the future of White, who will be recovering from a second significant injury and is set to account for $16.44 million in cap space next season.
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«[Douglas’] personality is the first thing that we notice here in the building. I mean, the guy’s a pro, the young man is pro,» Washington said. «… He’s a good person for our secondary to kind of really pay attention to in terms of how he approaches a situation practice. … It’s great to have another person with that type of a mindset.»
Also part of the long-term cornerback picture is second-year cornerback Christian Benford, who will miss Sunday’s game vs. the Chiefs with a knee injury. Jackson, a pending free agent, should start in his place.
Bernard, a second-year linebacker who rose to fill the departed Tremaine Edmunds ‘ shoes from Week 1 on, appears to be the long-term answer alongside Milano — who is out for the season with a right leg injury but signed through 2026.
«[Bernard’s] play speaks for itself,» McDermott said. «The year that he’s had as a young player stepping in with basically no experience and leading our defense, not only being productive, but also the leadership aspect of the job at the middle linebacker position.»
The defensive line will be key to a Bills win over the Chiefs, especially as the Bills face running back Isiah Pacheco for the first time this season. Only one defensive tackle is under contract for next season — Ed Oliver, who is having a career season after signing a four-year, $68 million extension in the 2023 offseason. DaQuan Jones, who came off injured reserve at a great time for the defense in Week 17, has paired well alongside Oliver.
At pass-rusher, Von Miller is set to carry the Bills’ second-biggest cap hit next season, and after not reaching a level of play that the team hoped, including being a healthy scratch in Week 17, his play in the postseason will be something to keep an eye on. Miller continues his attempt to recapture his previous All-Pro form after major surgery on his right ACL in December 2022. Miller also remains under investigation for allegedly assaulting his pregnant girlfriend in their Dallas apartment on Nov. 29.
While Miller was the big free agency move in 2022, Leonard Floyd, who signed with the Bills on a one-year deal in June, will go down as general manager Brandon Beane’s move of 2023 with 10.5 sacks this season.
The 34-year-old Miller and 31-year-old Floyd are visible members of a decidedly veteran group. Though several young players have taken on significant roles this season, this year’s Bills roster has an average age of 27.6 years — second oldest in the league. Only the Dolphins (27.8) were older in 2023. Contributions have come from players ranging in experience, such as in the linebacker room where 32-year-old A.J. Klein and 22-year-old rookie Dorian Williams have worked together in harmony.
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«It’s all you can preach as the older guys for young guys to step on the field and know what they’re doing, » Hyde said. «… We have a foundation here, we have a culture. It doesn’t matter who’s on the field, we’re expecting you to go out there and do your job and make plays. There’s no compensating.»
There are significant questions about how different a group that has dealt with missed games and new personnel might look next season. For the moment, after allowing 22 points or fewer during a six-game winning streak, the unit appears to be clicking at the right time with big goals for the rest of the postseason.
«You probably can only name a couple of weeks, a few weeks, when somebody, a key player, wasn’t hurt,» Oliver said. «You can name the weeks where the guy that was hurt, his backup stepped up or it was the next man up and he made a big play. So, we just have that mindset and trust in each other and we’ve done worked all year for this, so we’re just here to play.»