All apologies to the Bills. Overdue apologies, too. I thought they were broken, irreparably at least for this season, after Bill Belichick outwitted them in the wicked winds of Buffalo during the Patriots’ 14-10 win in Week 13.
Instead, the Bills have proven to be tough, resilient, and very, very good. And it’s the Patriots who haven’t been the same since.
That game was played Dec. 6, a little over five weeks ago, but almost a season’s worth of plot twists have occurred for both teams since.
After the Patriots embarrassed the Bills in their own place with a brute-force game plan that included 46 running plays and three passes (you got the sense that that was three more than Belichick wanted to throw), the losing players carried themselves as if they’d lost much more than first place in the AFC East that night.
Bills safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde played their most intense defense of the night not on the field but when a reporter asked them, perhaps with a little too much snideness, whether they were embarrassed by the performance.
Meanwhile, in his own press conference, coach Sean McDermott, looking like he wanted to blurt out, “I’M NOT SEETHING! WHAT DO YOU MEAN I LOOK LIKE I’M SEETHING?!,” seemed to go out of his way to dismiss Belichick’s inspired game plan.
“Let’s not give more credit than we need to give credit to Bill Belichick in this one,” he said.
I suppose the fact that McDermott somehow resisted punctuating that absurd statement by not saying “Bill’s not the boss of me” indicates he was showing some restraint. But it was not a good look.
Then the Bills went down to Florida and ran head-first into another longtime nemesis. Tom Brady improved his career record to 33-3 against the Bills, throwing a 58-yard touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman in overtime to give the Buccaneers a 33-27 victory.
The winner was the 700th touchdown pass of Brady’s career. To Bills fans, it must have felt like approximately 650 of those came against their team.
The loss dropped the Bills to 7-6 — and 3-5 over their last eight games. Even the Bills thought something was broken.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said running back Devin Singletary. “It’s the only way I can put it.”
Except that the Bills found something that day — toughness, resilience — even if they didn’t identify it in the immediate aftermath of a frustrating defeat. After falling behind, 24-3, at halftime to Brady and the Bucs, the Bills rallied in the second half, with quarterback Josh Allen leading a long drive late in regulation to set up a tying field goal to force overtime.
Allen finished that game with 308 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns, and another 109 yards and a touchdown on the ground. He took a beating as a ball carrier in the second half and left the stadium in a walking boot, but the display of toughness in defeat seemed to set a tone for the Bills.
They beat the Panthers without much suspense the next week, and then in Week 16 achieved something that seemed very unlikely just a few weeks earlier: They came to Foxborough and pushed around the Patriots in a 33-21 victory, seizing back the top spot in the AFC East.
Hyde intercepted a pair of Mac Jones passes, and Allen — who has improved more from his rookie season to his fourth than any other quarterback I can recall — was a greater force of nature than even the wind a few weeks earlier. Allen threw for three touchdowns, ran for another, helped turn obscure receiver Isaiah McKenzie (11 catches, 125 yards) into a Patriots nemesis, and seemed to convert every important third down in the second half in the reaffirming win.
Last week, the Bills became the first franchise other than the Patriots to clinch back-to-back AFC East titles since Buffalo’s 1988-91 teams. So much for being mentally brittle.
When the Bills and Patriots collide for the third time this season Saturday night, it’s Belichick’s team that has more to prove. The Patriots have long made a habit during his 22 seasons of playing their best football in December, January, and more than the occasional February. They sure seemed to be trending in that direction with their stirring win over the Bills five weeks ago before heading into their well-deserved bye.
Instead, they lost three of their final four games (Colts, Bills, Dolphins), beating only the lowly Jaguars. The Patriots held the No. 1 seed in the AFC after their win over the Bills. Now they’re forced to play uphill, entering the playoffs as the sixth seed and a wild card, and heading to Buffalo to face a team that not only wants revenge on its home turf, but has been proven fully capable of it.
Five weeks ago, the Bills looked broken. They’ve proven anyone who thought so wrong. And suddenly, it’s up to the Patriots to prove that their victory that night wasn’t their pinnacle.