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Tara Sullivan

The Bills expected a changing of the guard, but the AFC East-leading Patriots have flipped the script

With Mac Jones (left) and Damien Harris (center) powering the offense, the Patriots roll into Buffalo riding high.Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

The preseason script was written for a Bills coronation, a Monday Night Football game at Buffalo tailor-made to cement the new football order.

Think about it. The Bills were coming off an AFC East crown that broke an 11-year stranglehold by the Patriots. They had swept the struggling Patriots in two regular-season games for the first time in two decades, including a 38-9 drubbing on a cold Monday Night in Foxborough.

Behind their ascending young star at quarterback, they made it all the way to the AFC Championship game before losing to the Chiefs. And as the NFL emerged from its fan-less, COVID-regulated season, they brought back the core of their team, regrouped and reassembled to continue a journey clearly on the rise.

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So don’t blame Buffalo if it looked to a Week 13 Monday Night matchup against the Patriots as the opportunity to make it all official. Change the guard, hand the baton — whatever you want to call it, the Bills were ready.

And then the Patriots roared back to life.

As Bill Belichick and Co. ride their six-game winning streak into Buffalo, the Patriots are the team everyone is talking about. Not just in New England, but across the entire NFL.

“They’ve absolutely flipped the script,” ESPN commentator Marcus Spears said. “I think for good reason we were talking more about the Bills early on. For as good as Mac Jones has been as a rookie quarterback, we saw the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship game last year, and you didn’t know how those pieces would work that Bill [Belichick] brought in in the offseason through free agency.

“You knew the team would be better. Last year was kind of a blip. With COVID, the roster wasn’t where it needed to be. But a few of us in the media were still saying, ‘be careful about the Patriots.’ Don’t start crowning the Bills as dominant and they’re going to run the conference or the division for a long time to come. A lot of this looks really familiar to when the Patriots were winning championships.”

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Bill Belichick and the Patriots come into Monday's game on a six-game win streak.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

Much to the chagrin of an NFL nation bored by two decades of Patriot dominance, here they come again. They are back at the top of the division, back near the top of the conference, and back in the conversation as Super Bowl contenders. No Tom Brady? No problem. Behind Jones and a dominant running game, on the strength of an elite defense and a coaching staff proving more than ever how good it is, that backward step in 2020 has been replaced by two steps forward in 2021.

“This ain’t the same [as] last year,” Spears said. “A lot of people feasted on the New England Patriots last year. But we knew there was more to it. They had the most COVID opt-outs, the QB [Cam Newton] was new to the system. It was bad. But now the Bills [have] got to go and prove it against a Bill Belichick-built team that is playing well, that they can be top dog in that division.”

You can almost feel the shaking heads, see the weary eyes, and somehow sense what they are all thinking from Buffalo to Miami, New York to Los Angeles: “You have got to be kidding me.”

So how did it happen? How did New England flip a script that was so clearly supposed to be about the Bills and is suddenly all about the Patriots?

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You can start with Jones, who has fit in so well and played so maturely that it’s clear he is a worthy heir apparent. But the team’s rebound from a 2-4 start to an 8-4 record heading into Monday’s game has been built on so much more. From veteran leadership in the likes of Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater, and Dont’a Hightower, to big ticket free agents such as Matthew Judon, Hunter Henry, and Jonnu Smith all justifying their contracts, to other young players such as J.C. Jackson, Damien Harris, and Rhamondre Stevenson showing they are on the ascent, the Patriots have found their groove.

Those are the quantifiable parts, but it seems what the Patriots are building once again goes beyond the box score, evident in how they talk about their recent success. There are no coronations here, not in a place that knows what it takes to win it all, knows that it has nothing to do with talking about winning it all.

Just listen to McCourty, the ever-wise veteran, who managed this week to give this game its proper juice while also tamping down the hype. He’s a perfect Belichickian spokesman.

Devin McCourty is optimistic, but also cognizant of the challenge ahead.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

“We want to play well but it’s not going to be the end of the season if we win or lose,” he said. “If we win I don’t think we wrap up the division or the conference, I don’t know. It’s a big game though.

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“Honestly it has no bearing on Monday night,” McCourty added, laughing as he thanked his questioner for the reminder of last season’s Buffalo sweep. “Both teams understand what’s at stake and all the hoopla around the game. It’s going to be a battle. I don’t think last year really has any impact on that other than watching the film. Their team is pretty similar — when you go to the AFC Championship it makes sense that you try to bring back guys — but other than that, I don’t think that matters. This is going to be a tough game no matter what.”

A game that, going back to the start of the season, looked like it was going to be all about the Bills. Until the Patriots flipped the script.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.