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For Bills, there should be no alternative to securing playoff spot Sunday night

Vic Carucci

Lock it up.

There's nothing else for the Buffalo Bills to consider.

Beat the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday night and secure a spot in the playoffs. Never mind still having one of those last two games, at New England on Dec. 21 or at home against the New York Jets on Dec. 29, to get the win that will punch the postseason ticket.

It needs to happen Sunday night at Heinz Field, with a national television audience watching and the holiday mood in Western New York hanging in the balance. Here's why:

• It removes much, if not all, of the lingering doubt of the Bills' credentials as a contender after last Sunday's loss against the Baltimore Ravens. If the Bills received any sort of pass for losing to the Ravens because they're widely regarded as the best team in the NFL, it would have to be quickly revoked with a loss against the Steelers. The Steelers have an 8-5 record, putting them right behind the 9-4 Bills in the wild-card race. The Steelers also have undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges starting at quarterback.

• It doesn't leave anything to chance. Even with all of the Patriots' offensive struggles, does winning a game at Foxborough, Mass., to reach the playoffs sound like something the Bills can bank on? And if that weren't to happen, can you imagine how tense the atmosphere would be if the Bills were to carry a three-game losing streak into the season finale against the Jets?

• It assures the Bills of ending up with no worse than the fifth seed in the AFC. It also leaves the door open to a possible AFC East championship, but the fifth seed figures to offer a better wild-card path than the sixth because it would likely mean traveling to face the winner of the AFC South, either the Texans or Titans. The Bills' chances for a win at Houston or Tennessee seem better than at Kansas City, which is where they would almost certainly be headed as a No. 6 seed.

"We all know the same things you guys know," tight end Lee Smith said as I made my case that the Bills have almost no choice but to win Sunday night. "When you start talking about must-win and no other alternative, there actually are alternatives. But we want to and think we need to win this game on a higher level than anybody outside the building. We want to lock the door and have no ifs, ands or buts about it to finish our last two weeks of our season.

"Any loss stinks and it's hard on everybody. But when it's one that kind of leaves it up in the air a little bit? Sure. We want to go win this frickin' game, get to 10 wins for the first time in 20 years and give Buffalo Bill fans something to be excited about, give ourselves something to be excited about, and then just grind out the next two weeks and see what happens."

The conversation is at odds with how players are supposed to think and speak, at least with how their coaches would prefer they think and speak.

Everything is supposed to only be about the task at hand and nothing more. Ramifications and anything else that looks beyond is for media and fans to ponder.

But face it. Players are human. So are coaches, even if they sometimes behave as if they have microchips buried in their skulls.

They know the permutations. They talk about them among themselves, and with family and friends. Occasionally, they might do so with reporters, but not comfortably.

"Every scenario has probably popped up in everybody's head," receiver Isaiah McKenzie said. "We want the best scenario. This week is only what we're focused on right now, but these next few games are up to us. It's in our hands."

The hands attached to the Bills have been mostly reliable. The team has won the majority of games it was expected to win. It has also come up short when facing a heavyweight, which the Ravens represent.

But there is clearly a mentality within the Bills that they expect to win, something that hasn't always been true with this franchise or its supporters.

"I think we've moved that needle drastically since we've got here in the entire building," coach Sean McDermott told reporters. "It's been a long time since since this organization has been in a position like this this late in the season. And we don't take it lightly."

The same goes for the Bills' ability to step up on a big stage, as they demonstrated with their Thanksgiving win at Dallas. The Pittsburgh game marks Buffalo's first appearance on NBC's Sunday Night Football since 2007.

That doesn't change the focus McDermott has managed to get from his players since the start of the season.

"It's been a long time coming, the guys have worked hard for it," the coach said. "But at the same time, we've got to go out and execute and do the things that are necessary to win a game. Whether you play at 8 o'clock at night or you play at one o'clock in the afternoon, what it takes to win is typically about the same."

Despite the importance of finishing the job Sunday night, the Bills aren't looking to simply get the one victory needed for a playoff spot.

"You don't get to (nine wins) with that kind of mindset," Smith said. "You get to (nine wins) by, every week, having a ton of pride and a ton of professionalism and wanting to win at all costs. ... We want to win all three of these games. We went 3-1 in (each of) the first three quarters of the season, so that's our goal in this in this quarter, too.

"We want to win every game we play. And if you didn't have that mindset, good luck in the postseason. So I don't think any of us is thinking, 'Let's get this one in Pittsburgh, and then we'll all just sit around and eat Doritos for a couple of weeks and wait for the playoffs.' That's not what we're doing."

Still, a win Sunday night sets the table for a pretty good finish to a pretty good regular season.

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