ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The RVs had already begun to roll into the gravel lot, the grills would soon be spitting smoke, and the whipping winds were doing little to discourage the fans gathered in Carhartt jackets and NFL apparel, discussing drink options and team allegiances under a December sky.
The scene outside the Buffalo Bills’ Highmark Stadium was unremarkable, no different from those in stadium parking lots across the country each weekend, unless you considered that this was Saturday morning and kickoff for the game in question — a nationally televised showdown between the Bills and the New England Patriots — was slated for 8:15 on Monday night, some 60 hours later.
“Bills fans are crazy,” said Bob Beauchamp, a lifelong Bills fan from Rochester, as he stood outside one of the RVs. “But man, they love their team.”
Say what you will about the city of Buffalo — cold, cloudy, remote — but the place knows how to back its football heroes. Despite a dearth of on-field success over the past two decades, the team’s fanbase has long been considered among the NFL’s most raucous, known for a curious collection of oddball characters and inexplicable tailgating traditions — among them, scaling tall objects in order to launch themselves onto plastic tables below, in a practice known as “table-slamming.” Occasionally, the tables are on fire.
But for all the unrelenting passion and bravado, there remains one thing capable of rattling even the most ardent Bills supporter: a meeting with the Patriots.
Never mind that the Bills have emerged as one of the NFL’s best teams over the past two seasons, following up an AFC Championship appearance last season with a 7-4 record this year. Or that the result the last time Buffalo and New England met was a lopsided 38-9 Bills victory in Foxborough.
“Listen, when you lose to a team like we did to the Patriots for all those years, I don’t care how good the Bills are, there’s always going to be that looming fear of a letdown,” says Zac Bell, who hosts a weekly video show, “Smoke Break,” on the Bills fan site Buffalo Fanatics.
Indeed, around Buffalo this past week were all the typical signs of an approaching home game. The blue-and-red clothing. The Bills-themed school bus parked in a city lot. Even the DJ on the local 24-hour Christmas music radio station had ventured into football talk, hyping the upcoming game with the aplomb of a grizzled sports-talk veteran.
But bubbling beneath the surface of it all was the lingering anxiety that, no matter how bright the team’s present and future, it might not be enough against a familiar — and suddenly surging — Patriots team.
“I think anybody that’s a Bills fan would be lying if they said we’re 100-percent confident we got this,” said Shane Prouty, a longtime season-ticket holder and owner of the famed Bills Mafia House near the team’s stadium. “We’re all nervous.”
The nerves are not unwarranted, of course. The Patriots dominance over the Bills in recent years has been well-documented. Prior to last season, New England coach Bill Belichick had amassed a 35-5 record against the Bills during his Patriots tenure. Since 2001, meanwhile, the Patriots have won 17 AFC East titles. The Bills? One.
None of this has been lost on fans here, who one by one in the lead-up to Monday’s game voiced these and a collection of other concerns. There was the Patriots current six-game winning streak, for one thing. And the recent loss of prominent Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White to injury.
The weather, too, seemed to be conspiring against them. As of Sunday, the forecast was calling for snow at kickoff — which could typically be counted on as an advantage for the home team, except that the Patriots might be the one NFL team better adept at playing through such conditions.
“We’re playing right into New England’s hands here,” fretted Derrick Norman, a retired Buffalo firefighter who, along with friend Richard Peterson, has gained prominence among Bills fans for his sizeable tailgates and elaborate chef’s hats.
Nestled near Lake Erie and the Canadian border, and with only one other professional sports team for which to root — the mediocre Sabres of the National Hockey League — residents here admit that their outsized passion for the local NFL team is at least partially a byproduct of the limited alternatives.
At the Big Tree Inn, a bar near the team’s stadium, manager Eugene “Mel” Smaszcz has had a fine perch from which to watch the past 20 years of Bills football, both the years of struggle and the team’s recent ascent.
Aside from work, he also lives in a home just a short walk from the stadium — so close, he says, that he can get dressed, walk over, buy a concession-stand beer, and be in his seat in 11 minutes. He was once told that he had the only house in America with a view of an NFL JumboTron from the driveway.
“This team is everything to this city,” Smaszcz said last week. “It’s Buffalo, not Boston. We don’t have much to do but go to a football game.”
The team’s recent success, meanwhile, has only elevated things — as was evident in the lead-up to Monday’s game.
In a gravel lot next to the stadium Saturday, a group of longtime friends gathered around a pair of RVs. Some had served in the military together, and they’d made an annual tradition of attending one Bills game a year — a tradition so highly regarded that one regular had been unprepared to let his bout of COVID-19 get in the way of this year’s trip.
I’m OK with still coming if you are, the infected gentleman allegedly told the group in the days leading up to the trip. (They declined his offer.)
Next door, Prouty — owner of what might be the most famous house in the Greater Buffalo area — was making final preparations for his weekend guests’ impending arrival.
The two-bedroom home, known now as the Bills Mafia House and located impossibly close to the Bills’ stadium, had once been his own. But then he’d met his future wife and, well, finding yourself in the middle of a raucous three-day tailgate every other weekend in the fall was not always the most conducive to family life.
“She didn’t enjoy the weekends as much as I did,” joked Prouty, who covered the home in red, white, and blue paint, packed it with Bills memorabilia, and now rents it out on Bills game weekends.
Demand, certainly, has not been a problem; a recent Airbnb post showed the house going for nearly $350 a night.
Like many fans, Prouty was approaching Monday’s game with a level of caution; as a longtime season-ticket holder, he’d had a live look at plenty of Bills debacles against the Patriots.
But with the team’s recent elevation to the league’s top tier, he also took solace in the one thing that had eluded him during the previous two decades of lopsided losses to New England:
Said Prouty, “At the end of the day for me, regardless of what happens, it’s nice to go into a game just knowing that we don’t know [the outcome].”
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Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.