How much does tonight’s game against the Patriots at Foxboro mean to Bills fans?
The last time Buffalo swept the series against New England was 1999 when it went 11-5 to earn a wild card playoff berth – ultimately ruined by the Titans in the infamous “Music City Miracle” at Nashville – while the Pats finished 8-8 and last in the AFC East.
However, that bit of history doesn’t mean much to the current Bills.
After all, rookie wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins, the team’s youngest player, was 14 months old when Buffalo got its most recent sweep, and over half the roster – 33 players – was kindergarten age, or younger, when it last happened.
Since 2001, the Patriots have won the division 17 times in 19 seasons, including the previous 11 until this year when the Bills supplanted them. Over that span, New England beat Buffalo 34 times in 38 meetings and two of those four wins had Tom Brady asterisks. In one (2016), the Hall-of-Fame-bound quarterback was serving his four-game Deflategate suspension and the other was 2014’s meaningless season finale when coach Bill Belichick rested most of his starters and his star QB played only a half.
But Brady left for Tampa Bay after last season, several key Pats opted out of this year for coronavirus reasons (six, including three starters) and New England endured heavy free agency losses (six first-stringers and an All-Pro special teamer).
NEW ENGLAND went well into the offseason before it signed free agent Cam Newton, the former Panther, to replace Brady.
The Pats got off to a 2-1 start, including a close loss at Seattle, but on Nov. 1 they came into Orchard Park winless in three road games and with a 2-4 record. Buffalo was 5-2 and atop the AFC East.
Still, there was the specter of Belichick and, sure enough, the Pats outgained the Bills in overall and passing yards and barely lost the rushing total, 190-188. In the final two minutes, Newton drove the Pats, trailing 24-21, 65 yards into the redzone. On 2nd-and-10 from the Buffalo 19 with 37 seconds left, the tying field goal a near certainty and a touchdown the likely game-winner, New England’s QB took off on a tough 5-yard run. But he fumbled when hit by defensive tackle Justin Zimmer, fresh off the practice squad, with backup safety Dean Marlowe recovering.
The Patriots, who dropped to 2-5, seemed toast, especially after having endured their toughest loss of the season.
Instead, Belichick and a struggling Newton rallied New England to 6-6 before consecutive road losses to the Rams and last Sunday against the Dolphins ensured the first playoff miss since 2008.
BUT OTHER than the two Brady-asterisk games, the Bills haven’t won in Massachusetts since ‘99 at Foxboro Stadium, three years before its successor, Gillette, opened. And in those 17 games, the Patriots have outscored Buffalo by an average of 29-16.
Before this season, defensive end Jerry Hughes, the longest-tenured Bill, was 2-14 against the Pats (the two Brady-asterisk wins), 0-and-7 at Orchard Park.
But tonight in Foxboro, Buffalo can end the 20-year streak of failing to beat the Pats twice in a season.
Still, for the Bills, there’s a bit more at stake than stopping a bleak streak.
There’s the little matter of securing the No. 2 seed in the American Football Conference, which would assure them of a second home playoff game should they win the first, which they’ve already clinched by winning the AFC East for the first time since 1995.
A victory tonight will also achieve their first 12-win season since ‘93.
And, of course, as any long-time Buffalo fan will tell you, there’s nothing quite like beating the Patriots … especially TWICE in a campaign.
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at email@example.com)