It’s the middle of October, and the Buffalo Bills are in first place.
At least, that’s how the long-woebegone NFL franchise will head into Sunday’s game against the visiting New England Patriots, with whom they are tied atop the standings in the AFC East with identical 3-2 records that couldn’t be more contrasting.
It’s a somewhat disappointing start to the season for the Patriots, who should conceivably be 5-0 with their most difficult stretch of the 2014 schedule yet to come. For the Bills, who after five games last year were 2-3, en route to a 6-10, last-place record, being a game over .500 marks a veritable rebirth for the franchise, under new ownership as of this past week, when the Pegula Era became official.
You can forgive Buffalo for celebrating mediocrity. To help put it into some perspective just how damned long it has been since the Bills finished atop the division, Patriots rookie lineman Cameron Fleming, the youngest player on this year’s roster, was all of three years old when the team went 10-6 and went to the playoffs as AFC champs. In 1995.
In the 18 seasons since, the Patriots have captured the AFC East crown a whopping 13 times, including a remarkable 11 of the last 13 years. The only blemishes over that period: The New York Jets won the division and the tiebreaker over the Patriots in 2002, when both teams had 9-7 records, and of course, in 2008, when Bill Belichick, in the absence of Tom Brady, coached a Matt Cassell-led team to an 11-5 mark, again losing a head-to-head tiebreaker, this time to the Miami Dolphins.
Since the Brady-Belichick Era began in New England in 2001, the Buffalo Bills are a pathetic 83-130, never having a better record than the 9-7 mark they achieved in 2004, good for third place in the division.
Meanwhile, the two teams that have managed to sneak in titles under the Patriots reign haven’t been too successful from an overall standpoint either. The Dolphins are all of 98-115 over the same timeframe, and the Jets are 105-108, the most successful of the bunch with six playoff appearances. At least the Jets have been to the AFC title game, which they lost to the Steelers in the 2010 season. New York is 7-7 in the playoffs over that timeframe, while the Dolphins are 0-2. Their last postseason win came in 2000, a wild card win over then-AFC rivals Indianapolis Colts.
You have to go back to the 1995, the same, last year the Bills won the division for Buffalo’s last postseason victory, a 37-22 wild card win over Miami. The Bills haven’t even been to the playoffs since 1999, going on 15 years of incompetence and counting.
“In order to have success in this league, you have to do well in your division,” Belichick said this past week.
The Patriots have indeed found that key with a 63-18 record within the AFC East since the start of the 2001 season. The Jets are 39-41 over that same period; the Dolphins, 34-48, the Bills, 27-54.
But how much of New England’s success can be attributed to the fact that the Patriots are one of the NFL’s premier franchises, and how much is the simple fact that the AFC East has been a long-running punch line? In short, if the Patriots of the Brady-Belichick era were in any other division, would history look at their greatness so favorably?
A Quarterback Lazy Susan
Alex Van Pelt.
That’s a list of most of the quarterbacks to start for the Bills, Dolphins, and Jets since Brady took over the Patriots’ duties in 2001. Let’s just randomly use the historically competitive AFC North as a comparison.
The Browns clearly tilt the scales here, but the point remains that Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Baltimore have been fairly steady when it comes to quarterback duties over the past decade-plus; Roethlisberger (’04-present) with the Steelers, Palmer (’04-10) and Dalton (’11-present) with the Bengals, and Flacco (’08-present with the Ravens).
Since the AFC North came into existence with NFL realignment in 2002, the Steelers have won the division five times, the Ravens four, and the Bengals three. The Steelers and Ravens have also won a combined three Super Bowls in that timeframe.
Of course, quarterbacks alone don’t cement the vitality of a division alone, but their turnover rate in comparison to the Patriots does suggest a hint to the reason why the Pats have been the dominant foe in their division for so long.
Last season, the Patriots went 4-2 vs. the East, 8-2 vs. everybody else. In 2012, they were 6-0 in their division, only 6-4 vs. the rest of the competition. In 2012, they were a perfect 6-0 against the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins. Each year they made it to the AFC title game, the Super Bowl in 2012. As The Onion, of all publications, noted in its 2014 AFC East preview, New England’s strength heading into the season is that it “is the AFC East team that has its s*** together.” That’s hardly satire. The Patriots are an annual contender in a land of incompetency.
The 2013 AFC East had the fewest changes in wins of any division from one year to the next since the NFL realigned divisions in 2002, according to the New York Times. It has been a stagnant pool of filth, for the most part, easing the Patriots’ path to the playoffs for more than a decade.
Still, don't five Super Bowl appearances under Belichick speak for themselves? The Patriots only play the division schedule handed to them year after year. It’s not their fault that everybody else in the AFC East builds their teams with a clueless approach to beating the competition.
But it’s also fair to wonder if the Patriots played in any other division, would they indeed finish each season with the dominant records that have allowed them frequent home field advantage at Gillette Stadium. That’s a matter that didn’t come to pass in 2013, as the Patriots bungled a 24-20 loss to Miami on Dec. 15, a defeat that ultimately ended up being the difference in finishing 12-4 in lieu of 11-5 and winning the tiebreaker against the Denver Broncos, who finished with an identical record, but fell to the Patriots, 34-31, on Nov. 24. The Patriots were forced to travel to Denver for the AFC Championship game, which they lost to the Broncos.
Could that one, late-regular season loss even have even more meaning though? Might it have meant that the division is finally, mercifully, catching up to the New England Patriots?
Winging In a New Era in Buffalo
You have to go back to 2011 for the last time the Patriots lost their first game of the season against a division opponent as they did in 2014 against the Dolphins, a 34-31 loss to the Bills on Sept. 25 of that season. Of course, prior to this season, it was 2003 the last time New England lost its first game of the season, to the same Buffalo Bills in the “Lawyer Milloy Game.”
The last time the Patriots lost two straight to division opponents was in 2006, when they fell to the Jets on Nov. 12, and then the Dolphins four weeks later. On Sunday, the Bills can pull off another historic defeat, handing New England two straight AFC East losses to begin a season for the first time since 2001.
A win on Sunday would improve the Bills’ record to 3-24 against the Patriots under Brady. It would also deliver new ownership its first victory to kick off a new era in Buffalo, long-suffering at the hands of the haves of Patriot Place.
"I got a hell of a deal," said Terry Pegula, the owner of the NHL Buffalo Sabres, who recently purchased the Bills franchise for a record $1.4 billion with his wife Kim, a deal made official this past week. “I own the team.”
And so here are those Bills, in the brightest spot they have been in in years, with a new future, and a game against the Patriots on Sunday in the spotlight. But it’s difficult to figure this team out. Are they capable of beating New England behind the intel of Brandon Spikes and a solid defensive front? Or are they the sort of squad that plays into foolish bravado (see defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz requesting the team to carry him off the field in Detroit if they beat the Lions last weekend), which will ultimately be their undoing?
On the same note, it will be a statement game for the Patriots, who quieted criticism in the wake of their demolition of the Bengals. But are they that team getting it together, or should fans expect more of the hapless approach that resulted in a 2-2 start to the season?
“We’re excited for everything that’s going on,” running back Fred Jackson told the Buffalo News. “But it will all feel rather sour if we go out and lose on Sunday. To get to where we want to be as an organization, we have to be able to beat New England. So it’s on us to go out there and get that done.”
Sunday will be a crossroads for both teams. But it will also be more than that.
It could, after all these years, signal a change in the status quo of the AFC East.
How the Patriots finally react to that reality will be fascinating.
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