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Jerry Sullivan: A little bit of heaven for McDermott, Bills

Jerry Sullivan

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It hasn't taken Sean McDermott long to understand how to play to his base. Asked if the Bills had "gotten away with one" Sunday, the first-year coach gushed about his team reflecting the character of the town.

"It really personifies the city, doesn't it?" McDermott said after the Bills rallied late to beat the Bucs, 30-27, on an uncommonly glorious October day at New Era Field. "Heart, toughness, blue collar. The fans stuck with us all day. It was awesome, awesome."

McDermott smiled widely and let out an audible chuckle when I told him the Bills were 3-0 at home for the first time in six years.

"I love playing here," he said. "I do. These fans, what more could you ask for? These guy love it. The fans love it. We love it. To me, this is the place to play. It's like heaven for a home team."

Yeah, but it was looking positively hellish there for the Bills, who allowed Jameis Winston and Tampa Bay to score two touchdowns in a seven-minute span to take a 27-20 lead with 3:20 left in the game.

It was looking grim. I imagine fans at home were kicking the keg and flashing back to similar meltdowns during the drought. I was reflecting on the fact that the Bills had blown an identical 17-6 lead almost one year to the day earlier at Miami, sending the season into a downward spiral.

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But this team seems to be different. McDermott talks endlessly about the process, next man up, every guy being one-eleventh, all that team-building stuff. We roll our eyes at times, but it's ringing true. There's a sense that every guy on the roster is ready and willing to shine, and that the no-name guys are pushing the guys ahead of them even harder.

"Who's a no-name?" said linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, laughing out loud. "Like me last year? Ohhhh!!"

You know what I mean, 'Zo, the guys lower on the roster stepping up and making a difference.

"They're in the league for a reason," Alexander said. "I come from the ranks of those guys. So I have a lot of respect for everybody on the roster. You don't make this team because the coach likes you or you're tricking 'em. If you're on an NFL roster, you can play this game at a high level. It's really about getting your opportunity."

When McDermott has called on them, the lesser lights have responded. In the Atlanta upset, it was defensive guys like Shareece Wright, Cedric Thornton and Matt Milano. Against the Bucs, it was mainly the offense.

Five days after signing, Deonte Thompson posted the first 100-yard day by a Bills wide receiver this year, which included a massive 44-yard grab with 3:14 left to set up the tying TD. On the winning drive moments later, Taiwan Jones battled for an 11-yard reception on third-and-9, setting up Stephen Hauschka's winning field goal.

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It was Jones's first touch of the season. I know more about the country Taiwan. Earlier, reserve tight end Logan Thomas, who had one catch for 3 yards in his career coming in, grabbed a 22-yard TD pass from Tyrod Taylor. Oh, and back to the defense, rookie linebacker Milano had his first career interception.

You don't think that inspires a team? McDermott was glowing because this was a true team-building win, with the stars making big plays, the defense taking the ball away three times, Hauschka kicking a record-setting 52-yard field goal, and the bit players rising up when it mattered most.

So they're 4-2, tied for second with the Dolphins in the muddled AFC East behind the 5-2 Patriots. OK, let's not forget that they were also 4-2 a year ago, riding a four-game winning streak that had us believing Rex and Rob Ryan might not be incompetent clowns after all.

This further validates them as an legitimate playoff threat. I predicted they'd be 4-12. Who am I to throw stones? They've beaten the Falcons, Broncos and Bucs. The defense, which entered the game second in the NFL with a plus-10 turnover margin, is much more resourceful than last year's D, which rarely took the ball away.

They still have their issues, like most teams in a numbingly mediocre league. There were too many breakdowns in the pass defense. Winston threw for 384 yards, which means they've allowed more than 700 yards combined passing in their last two games. They're still limited in the passing game.

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But it was an encouraging day for the offense, albeit against a bad defense. Tyrod Taylor had a strong game, throwing for a season-high 268 yards (his second-most in a win) and running for 53 more. Taylor extended plays with his legs and made some nice throws. It was the second time he threw 30 passes in a win as a Bill, the third time he rallied them to a win in the fourth.

The running game reappeared, as LeSean McCoy rushed for 91 yards and his first two TDs of the season. He had his first carry of 15 yards or more since the opener. For once, the offense bailed out the defense.

"Yeah, but they also took the ball away three times," said center Eric Wood. "You're going to win a lot of games in this league when you take the ball away three times."

Yeah, but it must have done the defense a world of good to see the offense march 75 yards in 42 seconds to tie the game after the Bucs had gone ahead by seven on a Winston-to-Mike Evans TD strike. Tre'Davious White was still beating himself up about that TD later, so I'm guessing he was relieved.

"Last year, we probably would have lost this game," Alexander said. "I don't know if we were mentally strong enough. Sometimes you get in the rut of losing and it's like, 'Here we go again.' This year, it's, 'We still got this. We can make a run.' "

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The Bills didn't panic; they persevered. They showed the resilient character of a team that rises above its flaws in a league of imperfect teams. Next week against the Raiders, they can get to 4-0 in Orchard Park for the first time since 1995 (they were 4-0 at home in 2011, but the fourth win was in Toronto).

Wood, who was here in 2011, tells new players that it's like a college atmosphere at New Era Field, a "tight bowl down in the ground" feel that's unlike many of the antiseptic corporate palaces in today's NFL.

McDermott is no dummy. He knows his arrival was celebrated by Bills fans, who were desperate for a tough, capable and genuine leader to lift the team above the dysfunction. He knew what the crowd was like, having coached against the Bills before. But it has exceeded his expectations.

"It's been all of that, it really has," McDermott said. "These people have a lot of pride in this city and where they come from. You hope that every week we give them something to have pride in. That's why these guys play so hard. It's a great deal, a great marriage with the guys who play so hard and the city that works so hard.

"And I love it."

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