Daily Press (Sunday)

Counted out a month ago, Bills, Steelers are ascending

- By John Wawrow

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Stefon Diggs can’t speak to how Buffalo’s opening-round playoff opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers, turned around their season and secured the AFC’s seventh and final playoff berth on the final weekend.

The receiver, though, can sure discuss witnessing the Bills’ resolve as they won their final five games to clinch their fourth straight AFC East title and the conference’s No. 2 seed.

“Four more” is what Diggs whispered into quarterbac­k Josh Allen’s ear last Sunday, after the Bills capped an unlikely run by beating Miami. And Diggs believes winning four more games — which would include the Super Bowl — is achievable for a team he considers battle-tested entering the playoffs.

“I’m not going to say we got hot at the right time, but we started winning at the right time,” he said. “Things happened throughout the season that kind of shows you the will to win is real. And we’re going to continue to be resilient. We don’t really have a choice at this point.”

Two teams that fired their offensive coordinato­rs this season, continue dealing with major injury problems and were both written off a month ago will meet on Monday after the forecast of a dangerous winter storm postponed the game from today.

Buffalo (11-6) is the hottest team entering the playoffs following a late-season push that began after it squandered leads in the final minute of regulation and overtime in a 37-34 loss at Philadelph­ia on Nov. 26.

Pittsburgh (10-7) endured a three-game skid before winning its final three games, capped by a 17-10 victory at Baltimore, which rested many of its starters with the AFC’s top seed already clinched.

“Just smiling in the face of adversity,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “That’s been the elephant in the room that we’ve talked about and hopefully that experience shows — that urgency, that consistenc­y of urgency shows in our play.”

The Steelers’ run coincides with Mason Rudolph replacing Kenny Pickett at quarterbac­k.

The fourth-year player, who had 10 NFL starts entering this season, settled the Steelers’ offense by going 53 of 71 for 716 yards with three touchdowns and no intercepti­ons in the three victories. The Steelers’ ground game improved, with Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren combining for 444 yards rushing and five TDs during those games.

The 28-year-old Rudolph is 8-4-1 as an NFL starter. His previous postseason experience came in college, when he led Oklahoma State to a 30-21 win over Virginia Tech in the 2017 Camping World Bowl.

“Shoot, each game you get to play in the NFL is a freaking playoff game,” Rudolph said. “As a backup quarterbac­k most of my career, you’re very urgent. There’s a sense of urgency whenever you get to play, so that’s the approach.”

The Bills had an inconsiste­nt start to their season in which their injury-depleted defense had difficulty holding leads, their offense hit a rut and their special teams cost them two wins.

Coach Sean McDermott believes the Bills discovered their identity as they found ways to overcome mistakes and win close games. After starting the season 2-6 in games decided by seven or fewer points, Buffalo finished 6-6 in such contests.

“I think it got to a certain point a year where it’s just like, ‘Hey, this is the way it’s going to be, so it’s time to buck up and get the job done,’” McDermott said. “I think it says a lot about who they are and how important things are to them.”

Replacing the irreplacea­ble

The Steelers will have to find a way to make Allen uncomforta­ble without Pro Bowl outside linebacker T.J. Watt. The NFL’s sack leader and Defensive Player of the Year candidate is out with a left knee injury sustained in the season finale against Baltimore.

Since Watt’s rookie season in 2017, the Steelers are 1-10 without him, including a 38-3 loss at Buffalo in 2022. Rookie Nate Herbig and veteran Markus Golden will have the responsibi­lity of filling in for one of the league’s most electric players. The duo combined for seven sacks this season. Watt had an NFL-high 19.

 ?? MEGAN BRIGGS/GETTY ?? Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs tries to catch a pass as he is defended by Miami Dolphins cornerback Eli Apple during a regular-season finale last Sunday.
MEGAN BRIGGS/GETTY Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs tries to catch a pass as he is defended by Miami Dolphins cornerback Eli Apple during a regular-season finale last Sunday.

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