By JOHN WAWROW
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Safety Jordan Poyer never got a sniff at making the playoffs during his first four NFL seasons until signing with the Buffalo Bills in 2017.
So much has changed since for the player and team, which at the time was in the midst of a 17-year playoff drought.
In what’s becoming an annual tradition, the AFC-leading Bills (11-3) began transitioning the motivational messaging at their practice facility from “playoff caliber” to “championship caliber” after clinching a fourth straight postseason berth and fifth in six years following a 32-29 win over Miami.
That led to Poyer on Wednesday reflecting on how far the franchise has come, and how much unfinished business remains.
“It’s almost kind of surreal, right?” Poyer said. “Coming here in 2017, you heard about the drought and this, that or the other, but it really had nothing to do with us. But at the same time, we wanted to build something special.”
He then quickly shifted the focus from the past to the present, and the immediate task at hand in preparing to play at the Chicago Bears (3-11) on Saturday.
“We got a lot of work to get done,” Poyer added. “We’d like to be where our feet are at. We’ve got a huge game this weekend that we’re really excited about.”
A team that opened the season with Super Bowl aspirations still has a few objectives to achieve before the playoffs even begin.
A win or a tie on Saturday would clinch Buffalo its third straight AFC East title. With three games left, Buffalo also has the inside track to finish first in the AFC, and with it a bye through the wild-card round of the playoffs, and home-field advantage through the conference championship game.
The Bills enter the weekend tied with Kansas City (11-3), but have the tiebreaker edge after beating the Chiefs in October. Buffalo also has a one-win edge over the third-seeded Cincinnati Bengals (10-4), with the two scheduled to play on Jan. 2.
Clinching a playoff spot never gets old for Bills coach Sean McDermott, who said: “You never, never take for granted all the work that goes into that.”
In 24 seasons as an NFL coach, beginning with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1999, McDermott’s teams have now qualified for the postseason 17 times.
McDermott then deflected questions on what he’s helped build in Buffalo by turning his attention to closing out the season without any lapses.
“You’ve got to be careful of that relaxation syndrome,” he said. “You’ve got to stay on it. You’ve got to stay urgent in your approach, and put in the work that’s necessary to win.”
That urgent approach is what helped the Bills get here over six years.
Buffalo’s turnaround coincided directly with the arrival of McDermott and GM Brandon Beane.
Both were hired five months apart in 2017, and after working together in Carolina.
While McDermott focused his attention on establishing a culture of accountability on a team that previously lacked direction, Beane rebuilt the roster and salary structure of a lineup that featured too many overpaid and underperforming players.
Most important, McDermott and Beane were in agreement in determining to pin the franchise’s future on drafting quarterback Josh Allen, who has since established himself as one of the NFL’s top stars.
At 50-24, Allen capped his 50th win on Saturday with his 20th 300-yard passing outing and ninth with four TDs passing. His 171 touchdowns also match Dolphins Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino for most by a player in his first five NFL seasons.
Putting aside his personal numbers, Allen isn’t surprised by the success the Bills have enjoyed in crediting McDermott and Beane.
“I think it’s cool. But at the end of the day we still haven’t accomplished our main goal, and that’s what drives us every single day,” Allen said, referring to winning a Super Bowl.
“We’re switching over all the signs to championship caliber,” Allen added. “That’s what we want to do. That’s what we set out to do each and every year.”
NOTES: A major winter storm set to hit on Buffalo on Friday led the Bills to alter their travel plans. The team will leave for Chicago after practice on Thursday, rather than Friday. … DT Ed Oliver (calf) was added to the injury report in being listed as practicing on a limited basis on Wednesday. … Poyer said he expects to play despite missing two practices with a knee injury.