Things have changed. Don’t know for how long. But things have changed.
The Patriots host the Bills Monday night well aware of this season’s reversal of circumstances. The Patriots have won a staggering 35 of 41 games against the Bills during Bill Belichick’s tenure, their most against any opponent. At one point, from December 2003 to September 2011, they won 15 in a row, sweeping the annual two-game series seven straight seasons. They owned the Bills longer than Ralph Wilson did.
As you may have noticed, this season is different. The Bills have a chance to sweep the Patriots for the first time since 1999, when Doug Flutie was the Bills quarterback and Pete Carroll – whom I was certain would never amount to anything more than an annoyingly enthusiastic defensive coordinator after his time in New England – was the Patriots’ head coach.
Their victory in October was a crusher for the Patriots. Cam Newton fumbled at the Bills 15 with 31 seconds left, and Buffalo prevailed, 24-21, knocking the Patriots to 2-5. The Bills have since clinched the AFC East title – the first time any team other than the Patriots has finished atop the division since 2008. They’re the ones with the MVP candidate quarterback (Josh Allen) and genuine hopes of delivering the franchise’s most memorable postseason since the days of the K-Gun Offense.
The Patriots are playing out the string with a 31-year-old quarterback who has five touchdown passes all season – or one fewer than Marc Wilson had for the 1-15 1990 Patriots — and a roster in dire need of a talent influx at several positions.
I believe the Patriots will be back in contention soon enough, presuming the 68-year-old Belichick intends to coach into his 70s and their find the right quarterback. But the Bills are better, for now. This is their time, their turn atop the division, their chance to have a memorable January. The best thing Patriots fans can do is hope that they win their last two to finish 8-8 – unless you’d rather see them lose out to get a higher draft pick. It’s been so long since they’ve been in this situation that it’s hard to remember which uninspiring outcome to root for.
It’s also OK to get sentimental, I say. It’s the time of the year for that, and if there’s any year where we should make a point to reminisce and savor good memories, it’s this one. Belichick is never going to be one to thumb through the ol’ yearbooks. But for fans, the Patriots’ accomplishments – not just when it comes to collecting Lombardi Trophies, but the stuff that makes up the bones of the dynasty, like how they dominated individual opponents for years upon years – is there to be cherished.
There’s so much to appreciate from the Patriots-Bills battles over the years – rivalry is not the right word – that they fall into specific categories. There are the inspiring performances, such as Tedy Bruschi’s seven-tackle return in a 21-16 win over the Bills in October 2005, 8 ½ months after the beloved linebacker suffered a mild stroke and underwent surgery for a hole in his heart.
The 31-0 win to end the 2003 regular season – a bookend to the 31-0 loss to the start the season after the release of popular safety Lawyer Milloy – was inspiring in a different way. That win, and the comeuppance delivered to the Bills, was the biggest clue to that point that the first Super Bowl win two seasons early would not be a one-off. A couple of weeks later, the Patriots had their second Super Bowl title, and staying power that would last well beyond the wildest dreams of longtime fans.
Old friend Drew Bledsoe was the Bills quarterback for both the win and the loss in 2003. He would win just one of five games against his former team, with perhaps the most dismal performance coming in November 2004, when he went 8 for 19 for 76 yards in a 35-7 Patriots win and threw an interception to Troy Brown. It wasn’t the first pass he caught in his career from Bledsoe, but it was almost certainly the first Bledsoe was mad that he caught.
The Brown interception might count as a strange moment, but it wasn’t the strangest even among the teams. The Patriots overcame a 17-7 halftime deficit in the 2006 season opener, with Ty Warren sacking J.P. Losman for a safety and the winning points in a 19-17 victory.
In the ’09 opener, Tom Brady returned from the knee injury and threw a pair of touchdown passes to Ben Watson in the final 2 minutes 6 seconds for a 25-24 win. There was nothing strange about that, but Bills returnman Leodis McKelvin’s fumbled kick return that gave the Patriots the ball after the first Watson TD was one of the more knuckleheaded plays by a Patriots opponent in the dynasty era.
And in the Patriots’ 23-3 in in December 2017, there was nothing more strange and out of character than watching good-natured Rob Gronkowski drive his shoulder into the back of Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White’s head while he was prone on the turf.
There were so many incredible individual games along the way. Do you remember them all? Do you remember these? Tom Brady’s 466-yard passing masterpiece in a 40-32 win in Sept. 2015 … Randy Moss’s six touchdowns in two games against the Bills in 2007, during which the Patriots outscored them 94-17. “As we say in high school,’’ said Bills cornerback Jabari Greer after Moss’s two-touchdown performance in Week 3, “I got Mossed.” … LaGarrette Blount’s dominant performance in a December 2013 win, when he piled up 334 all-purpose yards – including 189 rushing and 145 on two kick returns – in a 34-20 win.
Even when the 15-game winning streak ended, the Patriots received a singularly sensational performance. The Bills beat the Patriots in September 2011, 34-31, despite a 16-catch, 217-yard receiving performance from Wes Welker. In the game stories after the Bills’ win, they were lauded as “the new-look Bills, who don’t know any better.” Their quarterback was this 28-year-old fella named Ryan Fitzpatrick. There were reports that he went to Harvard.
It is irresistible to note that the next time the Patriots and Bills met after the 15-game winning streak ended, the Patriots scored 49 unanswered points in 49-21 win in the ’11 regular season finale. The next time they met after that, in September 2012, the Patriots scored 45 points in the second half of a 52-28 win.
The dynasty Patriots didn’t lose often – especially when the Bills were on the other side of the line of scrimmage. And when they did, they were awfully good at vengeance, weren’t they?
That’s why there can’t really be a beef with the Bills savoring their moment now. It’s a long time coming and hard-earned. The Patriots will have their moment again. In the meantime, let’s appreciate how they stretched their last one into a two-decade dynasty, the likes of which will never be seen again.
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