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For Bills' defense, challenges only escalate from here

Vic Carucci

The Buffalo Bills' defense had its fun. A week ago, it beat up on Ryan Fitzpatrick. On Sunday, it battered Brandon Allen.

The trail of quarterbacking mediocrity has come to an end. From here on out, it gets far more challenging.

Start with Thursday, when Dak Prescott looks to provide some Thanksgiving indigestion in Dallas. In two of the three games that follow, Baltimore's Lamar Jackson, the front-runner for NFL MVP, and Tom Brady, the greatest of them all even if he doesn't quite look much like that these days, are due to take turns trying to make the Bills' defenders look bad.

For now, they look great. Sorry, that should be "good," because that's the word Jerry Hughes said the Bills' defense used to describe itself because it allowed a field goal in a 20-3 victory against the Denver Broncos at New Era Field.

"So we've got a lot to work on," the veteran defensive end said. "But that's the kind of guys that we have on that side of the ball. We say that we're playing 'good' defense when we give up points. And that's how we play. We're a very stingy group. We're tough on ourselves and we expect more."

The Bills sacked Fitzpatrick seven times and held the Dolphins to all of 23 rushing yards. They followed that with four sacks against the Broncos and limited a much better running team to 85 yards on the ground and 134 yards in total offense. That's the fewest Buffalo has allowed since 2013 and fourth fewest in 20 seasons.

It was the sort of performance the Bills, who with an 8-3 record are likely two wins from securing their second playoff berth since 2017, should have against a quarterback making only his third professional start on a team going nowhere at 3-8. It also was the perfect way to kick off a quick turnaround before the next game.

"Definitely," said linebacker Matt Milano, who had a team-high six tackles, including one for loss, and three pass defensed. "It feels good having a little momentum going into Dallas for Thanksgiving."

"That's a good storyline, we'll stick with that one," safety Micah Hyde said. "Maybe it could change on Thursday night, you never know. We had a pretty good game and overall team win and overall defensive performance."

The Bills' defenders played fast and were swarming Allen. They only had video of two NFL games of his to study, but were able to take full advantage of his lack of experience. Never was that more apparent than on an interception by Tre'Davious White when the quarterback incorrectly thought receiver Courtland Sutton was running a deeper route.

"We knew they had a good defense," said Allen, who completed only 10 of 25 passes for 82 yards and had a passer rating of 32.4. The 49 net passing yards the Bills allowed were the fewest since 2005.

"They squeezed our run game pretty good, couldn't really get anything going in the passing game, obviously," Allen said. "And when we do get a chance, I make that poor decision on the (interception). Trying to find completions out there was tough, and I obviously didn't do a very good job with it today."

Bills' monster ground game leads to strong rushing grade against Broncos

The Bills' defense has played well for most of the season. After being embarrassed by the 218 rushing yards the Philadelphia Eagles had on Oct. 27, coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier challenged the Bills' defense to not only clamp down against the run.

The coaches also urged the unit to play with greater reckless abandon.

"Definitely, these past three, four weeks, we've just been letting it loose, flying around," Milano said. "I'm not worried about making mistakes, and I think that's been the biggest thing for us is just not worrying about making a mistake, because anytime you're worried about that, you're not making plays. You're playing tentative."

Shaq Lawson led the aggressive charge for the Bills' defensive front with two sacks. That pushed his season total to a career-best five.

Not bad for a player to whom the Bills decided they wouldn't make a commitment in the form of picking up a fifth-year option they had available because he was a first-round draft pick in 2016.

"Just a phenomenal effort," McDermott said.

Lawson took the coaches' challenge to heart.

"Oh, man, we're doing our one-eleventh," said Lawson, using a line McDermott constantly preaches. "Everybody's playing smart football. We're not giving up chunk plays. Chunk plays have been hurting us in the past.

"And we've got a group of guys like me, Ed (Oliver) and Darryl (Johnson) come in (as reserves), so we're always fresh and any of us can play at any time. The team's going to go far as as (the lines take it). It starts up front on both sides of the ball. That's the challenge every week."

The challenge intensifies with talented quarterbacks who are part of offenses with the potential to be highly explosive.

To get to the postseason, the Bills will have to earn their way. McDermott and his staff were diving into preparation for Thursday's game immediately after Sunday's win. There won't be much time for meetings or practice or healing before Wednesday, when the Bills board their charter flight to Dallas.

Before they know it, the defense will be getting ready to face the remarkable running and throwing of Jackson. And then comes Brady.

"This is what we prepare for throughout the offseason, week in and week out," Hughes said. "We know, if you want to do anything in this league, you've got to do it in the months of November and December. That's when playoff time gets really crucial, that picture gets really small. If we want to throw our hat in the race, we've got to go out there and keep playing Buffalo Bills football."

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