ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — A year later, once again, we have Patriots, Bills, Red Sox, Orioles, and Yankees.
We have Ralph Wilson Stadium, Camden Yards, and Yankee Stadium.
We have a football coach hoping to make it to the Super Bowl, and a baseball manager scheduled for a firing squad at the end of the week.
It is the last weekend of September, and our local teams are playing the same opponents in the same places where they played at this time last year. Everything is the same . . . and everything is different.
The Patriots are in Buffalo, just as they were at this time last year.
The Patriots were 2-0 going into Orchard Park last Sept. 25. They had beaten the Bills 15 consecutive times dating back to 2003. It was a mortal lock, just as the Red Sox were a cinch to make the playoffs for the seventh time in nine seasons. Inspired by the names of Fred Smerlas and O. J. Simpson on the Bills Wall of Fame, the Patriots always won in Buffalo.
But it didn’t happen last year. Tom Brady was intercepted four times, New England blew a 21-0 lead, and the Bills beat the Patriots, 34-31. There was some confusion regarding New England burning a precious timeout late in the game. Nobody blamed the officials.
It was a shocking loss and made us wonder about the Patriots, but it turned out to be a mere speed bump on their way to the Super Bowl. The Patriots finished 13-3, beating the Bills at Gillette Stadium, 49-21, on New Year’s Day in the regular-season finale.
The view is a little different now. The 2012 Patriots arrive in Buffalo with a two-game losing streak. They are in last place in the AFC East, trailing both the Bills and the hated Jets by a full game.
Once again, we have questions about the young New England defense. The Patriots couldn’t stop Joe Flacco in the fourth quarter last week at Baltimore, just as they couldn’t stop Harvard’s Ryan Fitzpatrick when they played in Buffalo last year.
We are no longer talking about the Patriots as a 16-0 team. We are no longer certain that they will finish first in the AFC East. The Patriots have lost three of their last four games. They are suddenly vulnerable.
When the Patriots were losing to the Bills last year, the Red Sox were in Yankee Stadium losing to the Bronx Bombers in the first game of a day-night doubleheader. A few hours after the football game, members of the New England media gathered at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo. It’s the birthplace of Buffalo wings. When you cover sports for a living and travel to Buffalo, you are required to close the Anchor Bar.
We did the job. Still reeling from the Patriots’ shocking defeat, we bellied up to the Anchor Bar and watched the overhead TVs as John Lackey made his final start of the 2011 season in Yankee Stadium. Lackey was super stressed about getting a phone call from a TMZ reporter. We didn’t care, though I do remember my boss saying, “You know, these wings are a hell of a lot better than takeout from Popeye’s.’’
We watched every pitch as the Sox and Yankees played for five hours and 11 minutes. A grueling 14 innings. We were afraid the Anchor Bar might run out of chicken and beer. When Boston won, 7-4, after midnight, my boss decided there was no need to have a columnist in Baltimore Monday night. The Sox looked safe.
You know the rest. The Sox lost in Baltimore on Monday, 6-3, falling into a wild-card tie with the Tampa Bay Rays. I grabbed the first plane out of Logan to Baltimore-Washington International Tuesday morning. I was seated directly behind Larry Lucchino, who also seemed to be making an emergency trip.
Less than 48 hours later, the Sox were out of the playoffs, triggering an unthinkable series of events. Terry Francona was fired. Theo Epstein resigned. Bobby Valentine was hired.
And today the Red Sox are back at Camden Yards, bound for Yankee Stadium, where they will close out what appears to be their worst season in 46 years. Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of the firing of Francona. Bobby V is probably going to the gallows Thursday or Friday.
A lot can happen in a year. And a lot can stay the same.