Drink it in, Bills fans. You’ve certainly earned it.

How does it feel to finally be the team others are gunning for? After so many years under the boot of the New England Patriots, this year, and especially these last few weeks, announced the Bills as one of the teams to beat. Not just in the AFC East, where Buffalo won its first division championship, but the Bills clearly belong among the best teams in the entire NFL.

Sunday’s game against the desperate Miami Dolphins was just the latest evidence. In a game that only would have mattered to Buffalo if the Browns had choked against the Steelers’ backups on Sunday, the Bills bullied a team with playoff aspirations and Miami’s rookie quarterback, no matter who was in the game on their side.

So with some starters — most notably quarterback Josh Allen and wide receiver Stefon Diggs — playing only half or less of the game, and others sitting entirely, the Bills left no doubt in securing a 13-3 record and the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. If not for DeAndre Hopkins’ miracle catch from Kyler Murray in Week 10, the Bills would be winners of 10 straight, but 9-1 to close the season is still spectacular.

Buffalo’s betting odds reflect its regular season success: at +700, the Bills are third in the Seneca Allegany Casino’s Sports Book (as of Monday) in Super Bowl winner odds, behind only Kansas City (+225) and Green Bay (+450).

— While the season’s first half showed some cracks in this Buffalo team, with the Bills gashed in back-to-back weeks by AFC contenders Tennessee and Kansas City and an unimpressive 18-10 win over the Jets, the second half showed coach Sean McDermott’s team fix many of its flaws week by week.

Buffalo’s defense finished the season looking much closer to the one that ranked among the league’s best last fall than the one that struggled in the first half of the season. The Bills’ running offense never took off completely, but it rarely had to. Still, running backs Devin Singletary and Zack Moss finished with respectable yard-per-attempt averages of 4.4 and 4.3. And crucially, the Bills enter the postseason as one of the NFL’s healthiest teams: wide receiver Cole Beasley, a star in his slot role this season, seems like the only starter in question to play on Saturday against the Colts.

— But the biggest reason, of course, for the Bills’ improvement, and fans’ optimism, is the quarterback.

Of course, adding Diggs has been an incalculable benefit for Allen in taking the leap from a still-raw but improving prospect in Year 2 to superstar in Year 3. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll deserves a ton of credit too, and will likely get it in the form of a head coaching opportunity.

After an impressive first month of the season, Allen, the third-year QB, showed consistency in the season’s second half. He rewrote the Bills’ single-season record book for quarterbacks. Even with all the changes to NFL offenses (Allen attempted 572 passes this year; Jim Kelly’s career high was 480 in 1986), his season belongs among the best in franchise history. Allen may have had more chances to throw than his predecessors, but he also did it more efficiently: his 69.2% completion rate far eclipses Kelly’s career-best 64.1% in 1991.

Allen even became more than a dark-horse candidate for the league’s most valuable player. He surpassed Patrick Mahomes and is behind only heavy favorite Aaron Rodgers in betting odds according to FanDuel. Fair or not, Allen likely won’t win: Rodgers and Mahomes are still bigger stars (see: State Farm commercials), are proven championships winners and have similar or better stats for teams with similar records. But Allen being this close to Buffalo’s first league MVP since Thurman Thomas (1991) underscores how far he’s come in his third year.

If you’re still waiting for Allen to do it in the playoffs, I understand. I was a skeptic his rookie year, and even most of last year. His raw ability was off the charts in arm strength and athleticism, but lapses of recklessness and inaccuracy seemed too hard to fix. Then they bubbled up again in the playoffs against the Texans.

Last year, he let the moment of his first playoff game in Houston overtake him. Maybe that will happen again, to an extent, playing in front of home fans for the first time this season (even if it’s only 6,700 of them). But I doubt it will.

Allen has been money on national TV all season lately, and he had plenty of opportunities, with four straight games (two Monday Night Football games, one Sunday Night game and a Saturday), none of them decided by closer than 10 points.

And if Allen is up to the moment this year, I see no reason the Bills can’t make the AFC Championship Game. It’s not even crazy to think Buffalo could give Kansas City a game, either.

But it all starts this Saturday afternoon.

(Salamanca Press sports editor Sam Wilson may be contacted at swilson@oleantimesherald.com)

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