ATLANTA – Sean McDermott laughed, as most of the Bills did when the question was posed to them afterward. What if I told you this was the team's biggest road win since the Super Bowl days?
"I'd say hold your horses a little bit," McDermott said after Sunday's stunning, 23-17 upset of the Falcons, which put them alone in first place in the AFC East. "One step at a time. What more could you say? It's a great win, but it's the next game, the next win."
Coach-speak requires that you pretend every game is the same. It's on to Cincinnati, as Bill Belichick once uttered in a less giddy circumstance. If you're going to be a contender, you behave like one. Act like the team has won a huge road game before, even if it's been a quarter century.
But this sure seems bigger than a typical road win. We don't get many of these; even the most optimistic, zubaz-wearing fan had it written off as a loss before the season, when people were wondering if Brandon Beane and McDermott were planning to tank the season.
Going in the tank? Pinch yourselves, but the Bills might be going to the playoffs. The perception changed radically when they walked into shiny new Mercedes-Benz Stadium and beat an unbeaten Falcons team that nearly won the Super Bowl last February.
OK, they're only 3-1. Slow those horses! They've fallen apart before after hot starts. In 2011, they went to Cincinnati at 3-0 and lost. Still, you can detect a special quality about this team, which is more talented, resilient and unified than I imagined.
They're also very well-coached. McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier had a terrific day against the Falcons, making judicious use of their blitzes against Matt Ryan. The league's reigning MVP threw two interceptions in a game for the first time in two years.
Ryan's QB rating of 61.8 was his lowest since Week 5 of the 2015 season. We're talking about a QB who threw 20 touchdown passes and zero interceptions in his last seven games a year ago, including a three-game playoff run. His offense was averaging 37 points in its last 10 home games.
It helped that they lost Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu during the game. But the Bills lost guys, too. Shaq Lawson didn't play. E.J. Gaines and Ramon Humber got hurt. It was inspiring to see the likes of Eddie Yarbrough, Ryan Davis, Matt Milano, Shareece Wright and Leonard Johnson contribute to the D.
McDermott, who is likely to get some coach of the year buzz at the quarter mark of the season, brightened when asked how it felt to see some of his more obscure players rise up in a huge road win.
"I love that about this team, man," McDermott said. "I love it. The coaches and team, everybody at One Bills, that's who we are. They're a gritty, resilient group and these guys, they just love to play together. It's fun to watch them prepare. The chemistry that's building on this team is tremendous. This is a TEAM."
It was a classic team triumph "in all three phases." This was Tyrod Taylor's finest moment in a road game. He had another efficient day, throwing for 182 yards and no picks. The Bills haven't turned it over since the first possession of the season, a team-record 15 quarters.
The coaches knew they had to stretch the field to help the run game. Taylor made two gorgeous deep throws to Charles Clay. The first, a 44-yarder, set up a 9-yard TD pass to Jordan Matthews. The second was a 34-yarder on the first play after Atlanta tied the score, 17-all.
McDermott had played it safe on their previous possession, going for a field goal after a 19-play drive took 11:20 off the clock. But after the Falcons tied it midway through the third, Taylor took an immediate shot. It was the kind of bold reply that lifts the team after a brief discouragement and tells the opposition you're not backing down.
Stephen Hauschka, whose teammates have taken to calling him "House Money," booted two more gigantic field goals, from 56 and 55 yards, to give the Bills their 23-17 advantage. The second came after Micah Hyde's second interception of the day.
The Bills got the benefit of the doubt from the replay officials on Hyde's second pick, as they had on rookie Tre'Davious White's bizarre 52-yard TD return of a Ryan fumble after Jerry Hughes knocked the ball forward out of his arm.
So they got lucky, too. The Bills have seldom seemed to get the big break during the 17-year drought. I can imagine how many Bills fans were thinking when the Falcons drove to the Bills' 10-yard line in the final seconds. Here we go again, right?
That's not what the offense was thinking. "I knew our defense was going to make a play," said guard Richie Incognito.
"Every time we were able to stop them on first down, I felt that drive was about over," said center Eric Wood. "We were going to execute pretty well on second down, and on third down, the pass rush and the coverage was going to be good enough to get us off the field. It was funny how often that worked out today."
For once, it worked out at the most critical moment. Atlanta got a first down at the Bills' 14 with 1:03 left. MVP Ryan looked like a bad Kyle Orton on the final four plays. The Bills applied pressure, the secondary covered well, and on fourth-and-1, Ryan threw a pass well wide of Taylor Gabriel, who was blanketed by White.
Taylor knelt twice and it was over. They had outplayed and outcoached the NFC champs in their own place. They're a smart, tight bunch of guys who feel they're on to something special, and know the sports world is out there shaking its head and wondering what's going on.
"This is one of the most selfless group of guys I've been around since I started playing competitive sports – basketball, track or anything," White said. "These guys are willing to put it on the line for each other. I love being in this atmosphere."
They know they're good. Kyle Williams talked before the season about being on defenses under Dick Jauron that performed beyond their talent. He said this one is more talented. But he said their resiliency is their greatest quality.
"We talk about going into the deep water," Williams said, "where everybody's uncomfortable, and that's as deep as it gets right there: A Super Bowl offense there knocking on the door and we have to make a play to win, and we did.
"So it's good, it's fun, it's great to win. We'll enjoy it on the way home. Soon as we hit the ground, we've got the Bengals."