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COMMENTARY

That's the ticket: Bills leave nothing to chance in clinching playoff spot

Vic Carucci

PITTSBURGH — The Buffalo Bills did it right.

No waiting another game or even two to punch their ticket to the postseason. No leaving anything to chance.

The Bills had their shot Sunday night to win and become no worse than a fifth seed in the AFC playoffs, and they cashed in with a 17-10 victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. It marks the Bills' second postseason appearance in the last three years.

"To be in the playoffs in two of the three years now that we've been here, (although) we still have a lot of work to do, I'm extremely grateful and humble just to be a part of it," coach Sean McDermott said.

The Bills, who improved their record to 10-4 for their first 10-win season since 1999, finally broke out of an offensive malaise midway through the fourth quarter when they drove 70 yards in six plays for the winning points on a 14-yard Josh Allen touchdown pass to a wide-open Tyler Kroft.

Though the Bills had a chance to put the game away when Jordan Poyer intercepted Devlin Hodges in the end zone with 1:54 left, the Steelers had one more chance after forcing the Bills to punt. They put a scare into the Bills, driving to their 26 before Hodges threw another interception in the end zone, this time to Levi Wallace.

It was Kroft's first TD since joining the Bills in the offseason as a free agent, and since he had two with the Cincinnati Bengals in their victory against the Baltimore Ravens in the final game of the 2017 season that allowed Buffalo to end a 17-year playoff drought.

"I had a corner route," Kroft said. "I saw the coverage and I knew, when Motor (Devin Singletary) went to the flat, I was going to be open on the out break. So I was just trying to make sure I was just putting myself in position to be there for Josh."

Sure, even in a loss, the Bills would have had been able to land a playoff bid with a victory in either of their final two games: next Saturday against the New England Patriots at Foxborough, Mass., or their Dec. 29 regular-season finale against the New York Jets at New Era Field.

Taking care of business Sunday night, though, removed the burden of trying to win at Gillette Stadium, where the Bills only have two victories since 2014 — both while Tom Brady either sat out a half or the entire game. The Bills still have a shot at the AFC East title if they beat the Patriots and the Jets, and the Pats lose their season finale against Miami.

Sunday night's triumph also took away a scenario where, if a Jets win were needed for a postseason berth, the Bills would have entered the game on a three-game losing streak.

"Obviously, you kind of get that monkey off your back so you don't start playing tight," linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. "You lose this one and you've got to play New England and then it's almost a must-win if you're going into that last week trying to get a playoff berth.

"And who knows what happens? The Jets might want to play us real hard and then we don't make it in."

Those worries are gone, thanks in no small measure to the Bills taking the approach that if the Steelers were going to beat them, they would have to do so on the shaky arm of Hodges, their undrafted rookie quarterback.

The Steelers (8-6) had been doing their best this season to minimize Hodges' passing since he replaced Mason Rudolph four games ago. They were leaning heavily on the run, while Hodges had not thrown more than 21 passes in three victories.

On Sunday night, he attempted a season-high 38 throws — and wound up with four interceptions and was sacked four times.

The first sign that this game would go as scripted for a Bills victory came on the Steelers' first drive when Hodges, mustering all the effort he could, heaved a pass that Tre'Davious White intercepted at the Buffalo 25. The Bills couldn't cash in on the turnover, but the tone was set.

The Steelers continued to have issues moving the ball with Hodges. That led to Jordan Berry's punting the ball straight up for only 22 yards, setting up the Bills at the Steelers' 40. This time, the Bills made the most of the opportunity, driving to a 1-yard Josh Allen touchdown run to take a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter.

The Steelers' kicking game isn't all bad. Placekicker Chris Boswell has been having a strong season, and he came through in a big way after the Bills' scoring drive by connecting on a 49-yard field goal to cut the margin to 7-3 with 11:26 left in the second quarter. Hodges help set up the score with a 34-yard pass to James Washington.

The Bills had seemingly hurt themselves with sloppiness of their own late in the half. Allen threw a pass that was high and Cole Beasley allowed it to bounce off his hands, resulting in an interception by cornerback Steven Nelson at the Bills' 20. A facemask penalty by Kevin Johnson moved the ball to the 10.

However, on the next play, Trent Murphy forced a fumble that Poyer recovered at the Buffalo 9 with 1:53 remaining in the second quarter. The Bills were content to get conservative and stay on the ground while allowing the first-half clock to run out.

The Steelers began to show some offensive life at the start of the second half. Hodges connected on a 29-yard pass to Diontae Johnson, who fumbled but teammate Tevin Jones recovered at the Bills' 38. James Conner ran 17 yards to the Bills' 10. Two plays later, Hodges rolled to his right and threw to a wide-open Conner for an 11-yard touchdown to put the Steelers in front, 10-7, with 11:18 left in the third quarter.

The Bills' sloppy ways continued in the third quarter.

Singletary had a promising run deep in Steeler territory turn disastrous when T.J. Watt punched the ball out from behind. Cornerback Mike Hilton recovered at the Steelers' 31.

But the Steelers went nowhere and another poor punt by Berry put the Bills at their own 36 with 6:48 left in the third quarter. The Bills did nothing with the opportunity, as the Steelers' defensive front kept its mostly firm control of the line of scrimmage.

No problem. The Bills' defense came to the rescue. Again.

White intercepted his second Hodges pass of the night and returned it 49 yards to the Steelers' 18. The Bills squandered an chance, thanks to both their inability to win battles up front and general offensive ineptitude. In one case, a broken play that was supposed to have been a pass became a three-yard loss on a run by Frank Gore — one of six consecutive runs after the turnover.

The Bills wound up settling for a 36-yard Stephen Hauschka field goal to tie the game at 10-10 with 12:23 left in the fourth quarter and Buffalo was on its way to its fourth comeback in the fourth quarter this season.

"I mean, shoot, all you can ask for in this league is an opportunity, it's hard to get there," fullback Patrick DiMarco said. "We've got our spot now. It's just time to keep moving forward, get the division, get a home game in Buffalo and just keep getting better every week. Offensively, we didn't play completely like we wanted to today. We did enough, so we have to keep on keeping on."

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