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Bills give McDermott a much-needed win


As much as his team may have needed a win, Sean McDermott needed one even more.

Sunday capped a wild ride for the Buffalo Bills head coach, who was at the centre of an off-field drama this week with his team’s playoff chances hanging in the wind.  

The online publication Go Long released a 20,000-word piece on McDermott on Thursday, which included a 2019 story about the coach referencing the co-ordination between the 9/11 hijackers in trying to illustrate a point about communication in football.

That is a no-go zone for anyone.

An emotional and clearly shaken McDermott addressed the matter with the media and his team Thursday afternoon, telling both that he apologized to his team for the 9/11 reference within an hour of having made it.

The story of that 2019 speech received national attention leading into the Chiefs game, so having his quarterback and other team leaders openly stand up and speak out for their coach amid the glow of victory Sunday was a scene McDermott badly needed.

It’s not because he’s in danger of being fired. He has a contract that runs through 2026 and it’s been recently reported by Tim Graham of The Athletic that there is no chance McDermott will be terminated after this season.

It was significant because of the trajectory of his career of late and the growing sense in Buffalo that he might be the problem.

McDermott rose to huge popularity in Buffalo by being the guy who ended the 17-year drought when he led the Bills to the playoffs as a rookie head coach in 2017. For a brief while he seemed one of those rare coaches who could do no wrong.

To this day, he has a higher winning percentage than Bills coaching legend and Hall of Famer Marv Levy, so it’s not hard to see why he’s been popular.

But by last season’s humbling home playoff loss to Cincinnati, the bloom had started to come off that rose.

As of Sunday morning, he was the coach of perhaps the best .500 football team in NFL history, a team with a superstar quarterback in his prime, a legit No.1 receiver, some emerging young stars and a team still fully capable of winning a Super Bowl.

Consider that over their past two games, the Bills have outscored last year’s Super Bowl participants — the Eagles and Chiefs — by a combined 50-47 during regulation time. And both those games were on the road.

So, there’s not much doubt about this being a good football team, despite a lengthy list of key injuries on defence. It’s not hard to see why the coach was drawing all the attention, even before this latest controversy.

McDermott took over defensive play calling this season from last season’s defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier. In November he fired offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, one night after the team blew a game to Denver with blunders on defence and special teams.

That game, and a subsequent loss to the Eagles, were both instances where McDermott’s late-game instincts calling the defence couldn’t produce a win, making Bills fans fearful of one-score games that so often blow up in their faces.

It’s not just imagination. McDermott is 0-6 in his last six games that went to overtime, including two OT losses this season. And when the Bills and Chiefs play, you know 13 seconds is in the back of all our minds.

That’s why the Bills winning 20-17 at Arrowhead Stadium in a tight, one-score game made the win for McDermott extra significant. For a time on Sunday it appeared the Bills were following a familiar script, blowing a lead in the final stages of a game they’d led most or all of the way, triggered by a bad Josh Allen interception.

Only Chiefs receiver Kadarius Toney lining up in the neutral zone interrupted the script, erasing what might have been the most unique ending to a football game in NFL history.

Running with the ball after the catch, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce threw the ball across the field laterally with a perfect spiral, landing it in the hands of Toney, who carried it into the end zone.

What would have been the play of the season was erased by a penalty committed by a receiver who has spent more than his share of the time in the doghouse since coming to K.C. from the New York Giants.

Mahomes seemed post-game like he wanted to cry about it.

To be fair, the Bills were due. For about two months they have been the what-else-could-go-wrong team, each loss dotted with “what if” moments or debatable calls that have gone the other way. You might say the football gods evened one out.

Now the Bills head home to face Dallas next Sunday, knowing that’s the biggest test they’ll face before the end of season. A win there and suddenly anything is possible, with the Chargers and Patriots up next.

And while it was by no means a virtuoso performance by his quarterback, Sunday’s win at K.C. was still a healthy dose of throwback Allen, his tuck-it-and-run style having re-emerged since Joe Brady took over the play calling from Dorsey less than a month ago.

The Bills also proved they can win a game where their wide receivers don’t thrive, which for a long time seemed unthinkable.

Throwing to running backs, using two tight ends as targets, and the return of the run game have allowed Bills more ways to win football games – when they don’t beat themselves.

There’s a chance this whole McDermott drama may have galvanized the coach and his players, through the experience of backing one another up and sharing victory all at once.

McDermott said after the game that he’d never been so proud of his players. He might have added that he’s never had a win in his career as sweet or timely as this one either.