There was a time when the Bills unquestioned rival was Miami.
The Dolphins – “Dalphins” as late Buffalo play-by-play man Van Miller used to call them on the air – were formed in 1966 as an American Football League expansion franchise.
And, at first, the Bills, an original member of the AFL from six years earlier, fared reasonably well. They went 4-3-1 against the fledgling Florida team in the first four seasons.
Then, in 1970, Miami hired Hall-of-Fame-coach-to-be, Don Shula, and the rivalry was on.
Shula, fresh from the same job with the Baltimore Colts, beat the Bills the first 20 times his team saw them.
Buffalo went zero-for-the-decade-of-the-’70s against Miami.
Some of the losses were close – seven by a touchdown-or-less – but the winner was always the same.
And while there are those who say a rivalry can only exist if two teams are relatively close in ability, that’s not true. In a series where one team dominates, the seemingly perpetual victim’s fans always see it as a “rival” … an obstacle to be surmounted.
As the streak against the Dolphins extended in the ’70s, the week before each meeting became an angry crusade for the Buffalo faithful … but always with the same sad ending.
However, things change in the Nothing Forever League.
Midway through the 1986 season, Marv Levy replaced the beleaguered Hank Bullough as Bills coach.
Marv lost his only meeting against the Dolphins that year, but then went on to win 16 of the next 19 meetings with Miami, including 3-0 in the playoffs. In 11½ years, he was 18-8 against Miami, a gaudy 17-5 versus Shula.
The “rivalry” lost its zest when the legendary Dolphins coach retired after the 1995 season, but five years later Buffalo found a new one.
Veteran Bill Belichick was hired as the new boss in New England in 2000 and he was joined by a rookie quarterback taken in the sixth round named Tom Brady.
Another rivalry was born.
The Patriots, in December of that year, started a streak of 35 wins in 39 games against the Bills … and it was even worse than that. One of Buffalo’s victories came in a meaningless season finale when Belichick rested his starters and another occurred while Brady was serving a four-game suspension.
And because of that embarrassing record, Bills fans hated the Pats, Belichick and Brady, in no particular order.
NOW THAT rival role might be changing back 1,400 miles to the south.
Buffalo, en route to a 13-3 record and an AFC East title last season, with Brady gone to Tampa Bay, beat New England twice, the first time that’s happened since 1999.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins went 10-6, and just missed the playoffs, splitting with the Patriots, who finished 7-9 and missed the postseason for the first time in a dozen years.
Miami fans cite the 31-28 loss to Buffalo at Hard Rock Stadium in the season’s second game as the defeat that ultimately doomed their team’s playoff bid.
And, come Sunday, the Bills and Dolphins, for the second consecutive year, meet at Miami Gardens in Game 2, this time with major division implications.
Last week, coach Brian Flores took his team to Foxboro and edged the Patriots, 17-16, and became the only AFC East squad to win its opener.
At the same time, the Bills, one of the conference favorites, stumbled to a 23-16 loss to Pittsburgh at Highmark Stadium.
Buffalo is favored by three, mostly because of last season’s performance, but clearly oddsmakers are wary of this game after the Dolphins’ impressive road win in the opener.
To be sure, even as early as the meeting is, Miami being 2-0 and Buffalo 0-2 would drastically change the view in the division. That’s why a Bills victory, which would tie them for the AFC East lead, no matter what, looms as so important.
That’s why tomorrow’s game has rivalry written all over it … for real.
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)