Sean McDermott has ventured into the New Era Field parking lot after home games enough times to identify with devout Bills fans. The head coach has gone out of his way numerous times to thank them during his first season while praising them for their undying loyalty.
If there's one aspect that separates McDermott from the fan base, however, it's history. McDermott has said numerous times that he takes ownership in Buffalo's past, but it's impossible for him to fully comprehend 17 straight years of missing the postseason.
Every year they miss, the burden becomes heavier.
The Bills are 8-6 with road games remaining against the Patriots next week and the Dolphins in the season finale. Tom Brady has a 27-3 record against the Bills during his career. The Bills had a decisive victory over the Dolphins on Sunday. It's easy to envision them finishing 9-7 and needing help to wiggle through …
What am I doing?
You practically need a Ph.D in mathematics from MIT to break down the mind-numbing scenarios that can unfold over the final two weeks. News sports reporter Nick Veronica did a terrific job breaking down the different possibilities, and my brain was still on the verge of shutdown.
McDermott took the smart approach Monday, adhering to … yes … The Process without getting bogged down by variables that could come into play. He was thinking about the next game. The Bills first need to do their part to remain in the playoff discussion. The playoffs remain a tossup.
All year, the divide between McDermott and a vast majority of Bills' fans was their approach toward the drought. McDermott wasn't witness to the Bills being 8-6 back in 2004 and losing to the Steelers' backups in a must-win finale at home. To him, close but not close enough should be little more than a rumor.
"I see the passion in this fan base," McDermott said. "Living here now with my family, I know what it would mean. I see it in the players who have been here. I see it down deep in them and what it means to them. I feel that. There's nothing more I would want in the first year than to give them that."
McDermott has talked all year about winning now and planning for the future, but there was a sense they were mutually exclusive. Yes, he would like to win now and do everything in his power to win the next game. If he ended the drought in his first season, he'll never buy another beer in Buffalo.
Yet his deeper desire was always building the Bills in a way they can achieve sustained long-term success. He didn't feel the pressure that comes with missing the playoffs year after year. Developing players and improving his team overall was his top priority, not ending the drought.
If the Bills fall short of the playoffs, people will point toward the loss to the Chargers and base their argument on the loose assumption that they would have won if Tyrod Taylor started at quarterback rather than Nathan Peterman. To me, all it meant was Buffalo would have lost by less. But nobody knows for sure.
It has been a long, strange season in the NFL, particularly in the AFC. The Dolphins emerged from the weeds and dominated the Patriots, who should have lost again Sunday in Pittsburgh. Rather than carry the big win into Buffalo, Miami reverted back to life with Jay Cutler.
Anyone who has supported or covered or lived in Buffalo over the past two decades is well aware of the Bills' history and their penchant for collapse, usually when hope reaches its peak. There have been teams that finished 9-7 with meaningless wins in the finale, teams that finished worse after losing big games in November or December and falling out of the race.
"The season kind of takes different twists and turns," McDermott said. "It's a test of how long a group of people can hang together, in a building hang together, through the highs and lows of a season, through injuries, adversity, the different forms of adversity that every team goes through. … The good part about us is we continue to build, continue to get better and grow. These are valuable experiences for our young players to go through. All good stuff."
The Bills were putting the finishing touches on the game Sunday, improving to 8-6 for the third time since the drought began, when I asked via Twitter: "How many fans see them losing a must-win finale to the Miami team they handled today?" You would have thought I was the Grinch who stole the playoffs.
C'mon, people. I wasn't trying to bring down fans after a solid win. I also wasn't trying to kid anyone because losing the final two games remains well within reason. Beating the Patriots on the road and losing to Miami in a game Buffalo desperately needed would be so Bills-y that it's darned near expected.
Look, it's hard for any team to beat another team twice in a season. Ask the Patriots, who clinched their 14th division title in 15 years Sunday. The Pats won more games than anyone during Buffalo's playoff drought but finished undefeated in the division only twice during that span. They lost to Miami this year.
But here's another truth: McDermott and the majority of his players either don't know or don't care about the Bills' gruesome past. The six starters who remain from the beginning of 2014, including punter Colton Schmidt and injured left tackle Cordy Glenn, are two games over .500 with the Bills in the past three-plus seasons.
Their teams have fallen short, but they haven't necessarily fallen apart. The Bills won six home games this year, the first time since the drought began. Most players on the roster never experienced persistent losing in the NFL. The drought permeates much deeper through the fan base than the locker room.
My advice to Bills fans over the final two weeks hasn't changed: Sit back and hope for the best … but brace for the worst.