Bills transitioning from underdog to a big dog in AFC as playoffs approach

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Bills are a team of underdogs. It's not an insult, rather a logical observation when looking at the collection of players and coaches who have assembled in Buffalo since 2017.

Throughout the Bills' organization, you'll find people who have been fired, cast off, released, replaced, etc. The mentality to prove their detractors wrong fuels their identity, especially in a city that's had a permanent chip bullied onto its shoulder over the past two decades by the New England Patriots.

"Yeah, I think if you're wired the right way I think it motivates anyone. It should," Bills coach Sean McDermott said. "That's how I've lived my life and how I think a lot of the guys in the locker room have lived their life to this point. They've been counted out before and they just continue to prove people wrong."

Buffalo has used that underdog mentality, a perceived lack of respect, to its advantage this season. After dismantling the Patriots on Monday Night Football, the Bills sit at 12-3 and currently would be the No. 2 seed in the AFC. With a win against the Miami Dolphins in Week 17 (1 p.m. ET, CBS), Buffalo can secure at least two home playoff games if it keeps winning.

Therein lies unfamiliar territory for the Bills, however. After flying under-the-radar for most of the 2020 NFL season and rightfully claiming a lack of national respect, nobody is sleeping on this team anymore. They were the No. 2 team in ESPN's Power Rankings last week before dropping behind Green Bay to No. 3 this week, and are now discussed as the biggest threat to the Kansas City Chiefs, the AFC's reigning champion.

The Bills' days as the underdog are rapidly coming to a close, if not finished already. So how does a team continue to push forward without one of its core motivational chips?

"You can ride that underdog deal for some amount of time," McDermott said. "But when you become good, I guess is the best way to say it, at some point you have to also know how to be good. I think that comes over time.

"What you're seeing is a maturation and professionalism and leadership of our players."

Bills left tackle Dion Dawkins called Monday's game "the next one on our schedule," dismissing the idea they needed to prove themselves against the AFC East's reigning champ in the Patriots.

Dawkins also recognized the shift in Buffalo's mentality and perception across the league.

"It just shows that we have evolved as an organization and a team, that we're nobody's little brother," he said. "We're nobody’s little cousin, little dog -- no, we are here, you're going to respect us, you're going to play us hard. You're going to circle us on your schedule and we're going to give you the hardest 60 minutes of football that you've ever seen.

"And we're going to keep doing it over and over again."

Dawkins was one of the first pieces in the Bills' culture shift, as the second player drafted under the McDermott regime in 2017. Defensive end Jerry Hughes, on the other hand, is Buffalo's longest-tenured player and has been with the team since 2013. His experience with the Bills has given him a different perspective -- that the "underdog mentality" is not the same as having a chip on your shoulder.

"Chip on your shoulder, target on your back -- it stays the same. You understand that there's always someone gunning for you," Hughes said. "We understand that even from a position standpoint. The guys in the D-line room want to take my spot, so you know it's always competition. We're never afraid of that. But the chip on your shoulder never leaves. Until we bring back a Lombardi trophy and a bunch of other accolades to Orchard Park, that chip is going to stay just because that's who we are.

"People don't respect us, they don't expect us to do the things that we do. We've got a quarterback that's been barely sacked and no offensive linemen in the Pro Bowl. We've got a slot [receiver Cole Beasley] that's killing it and he doesn't get a Pro Bowl. We've got guys who are talented and still aren't getting the respect around this league that they deserve. So that's just going to be there until they understand that we are the Buffalo Bills and we're here to play."

After five double-digit wins since Week 12, the football world is running out of excuses not to show the Bills the respect they've earned.