"Listen, I want you to write this. The Patriots are where we want to be. If we're going to win the division, we've got to beat them. Then our next step is we want to be the favorite every year, just like they are. And if we're scared of them, we got no chance of doing that." -- Buffalo Bills general manager Buddy Nix during the preseason
For the large majority of the last 11 years, the AFC East has remained firmly in the grasp of the great Bill Belichick. There have been few other contenders for the throne. Belichick and his players have taken to the field each summer wearing team-issued training garb, the words on their chests declaring the most indisputable truth in their division.
Property of the New England Patriots.
The Buffalo Bills fancy themselves as contenders for that division now, the latest indication coming in the form of a blockbuster contract the Bills dropped at the feet of defensive lineman Mario Williams, the former No. 1 overall draft selection (2006) acquired to spearhead Buffalo's defense. Williams was signed to be a difference-maker. And he was signed almost exclusively to get after Tom Brady, whose career against the Bills has produced an 18-2 record, 46 touchdowns, and just 17 interceptions.
In two games against Buffalo last year, Brady went 53 of 80 -- a 66.3 completion percentage -- for 725 yards and seven touchdowns. Yes, Brady threw four interceptions in the first meeting -- a 34-31 Buffalo win -- but it would be a stretch to say the Bills stopped him. New England scored 80 points in the two games.
Now the Bills are back. They have Williams. And they have a 2-1 record while New England comes in at 1-2, which puts an obvious emphasis on this week's game.
In a manner of speaking, the winner takes early-season control of the AFC. The Patriots by default. The Bills by force.
Since Brady's ascension in 2001, the Patriots have ruled the AFC East the way Tiger Woods once ruled the PGA. Someone else makes a run every now and then, but no one ever really sustained it. The New York Jets went 9-7 and claimed the division via tiebreaker in 2002. The Miami Dolphins did the same in 2008, when Brady effectively missed the entire year to injury. The New York Jets had more postseason success than the Patriots in 2009 and 2010, but New England, as always under Brady, ultimately maintained possession.
The Bills now believe it is their turn, general manager Nix even sounding a little bit like Jets coach Rex Ryan, who made it clear during his early days in New York that he was not there to kill Belichick's rings.
For those of us in New England, dismissing the Bills is easy based on the history of the Belichick Era. Buffalo's only two wins against the Patriots in the last 10 years came in the infamous Lawyer Milloy game in 2003, then again at Buffalo last season. (Interestingly, the Patriots went to the Super Bowl both years.) And yet, the Patriots have rarely needed a game against Buffalo the way they need this one on Sunday.
During the Brady-Belichick Era, much has been made of the Patriots' ability to bounce back from defeats, consecutive losses being a rarity. Until Sunday night's loss to the Baltimore Ravens, the Patriots hadn't been under .500 during the regular season since 2003. (That was the aforementioned Milloy game, a 31-0 loss at Buffalo to open the season.) Now the Patriots face the possibility of a three-game losing streak for the first time since 2002, when they lost four straight after opening the season 3-0.
Does everyone see what is at stake this weekend? The last time the Patriots lost three straight during the Belichick Era was also the last time the Patriots failed to win at least 10 games in a season. They missed the playoffs for really the only time in Brady's career as a starter. (Again, Brady was hurt in 2008.) A defeat to the Bills on Sunday would be a very, very bad sign in the short term and the long, and it would offer some reason to wonder whether Buffalo is the new flavor of the month in the division.
For what it's worth, Buffalo last season scored 55 points in its first five quarters against the Patriots. While the Bills have an obvious question at running back in this game -- C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson are both injured -- quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has other weapons, including wide receiver Stevie Johnson. The New England defense looked suddenly and suspiciously vulnerable against the Ravens on Sunday night, and the Bills, when healthy, may have every bit the offensive personnel the Ravens do, if not more.
What that all means this week is obviously anybody's guess.
But by the time the sun sets late Sunday afternoon in Buffalo, we may all have an answer as to just how much of a threat the Buffalo Bills really are this season, and whether the Patriots' annual place atop the AFC East is being questioned by the latest team to make a run.
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