To hear the Patriots talk about their matchup this week with the Buffalo Bills, you might think that Marv Levy, Bruce Smith and Jim Kelly were still there running a squad that went to four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s.
“I think when we play the Bills, it’s a very competitive rivalry,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday - seemingly with a straight face.
Tom Brady said of Ralph Wilson Stadium - where the Patriots meet the Bills at 1 p.m. on Sunday - “It’s never been an easy place to play.”
Really? The Patriots are a whopping 25-3 against Buffalo since Belichick became the head coach in 2000. It’s the most lopsided “rivalry” in the NFL this century.
In that uneasy Buffalo environment the Patriots have gone 11-2 since Brady became the Patriots starter in 2001.
“We’ve had some great wins, we’ve had some tough losses and kind of everything in between,” Brady said of Buffalo.
Here’s the “in between”: The Patriots have outscored the Bills 370-183 in Buffalo since 2001.
The Patriots quarterback was gently reminded that his praise for the Bills doesn’t quite match up with his dominance of the franchise and his mere two defeats in western New York.
“Yeah, we lost pretty bad, though, both times,” Brady said. “Those stick out with me.”
But Bills wins against the Patriots have been rare. In fact, the Patriots have basically used the Bills as a stepping stone to become one of the most dominant teams in NFL history.
New England has a league-best record of 166-63 since 2000, and more than 15 percent of those wins have come against Buffalo - far more than any other team.
It’s a problem that makes Bills players – and fans – angry. But for 15 years now, they haven’t been able to stop it. Last year, ex-Bills safety Jairus Byrd told the Buffalo News “it just gets old” being dominated by the Patriots and then watching their AFC East foes head to the playoffs every year.
Inside the numbers
The details of the Patriots domination of the Bills is eye-popping:
■ Buffalo has never won in Gillette Stadium, despite playing there every season since its 2002 opening. They are one of 17 teams that are winless in the regular season at Gillette, but their 0-12 record is by far the worst.
■ Between 2003 and 2010, the Patriots won 15 straight games against the Bills, the third-longest winning streak vs. one team in NFL history.
■ The Patriots’ dominance over the Bills coincides with Buffalo’s playoff drought, which is the longest in the NFL. The Bills haven’t made the playoffs since 1999, while the Patriots were in the postseason 11 times in Belichick’s first 14 seasons.
■ The Bills have an overall record of 91-138 (.397) during the Belichick era, while the Patriots have been unmatched at 166-63 (.725).
■ The margin of victory in the Patriots’ 25 wins against the Bills is 16.1 points. (For reference, the average margin of victory around the NFL for non-Thursday games last season was 11.4 points.)
■ The Patriots and Bills had a fairly even all-time series before Belichick’s arrival. The Patriots were 41-38-1 against Buffalo. Thanks to the Belichick era, the Patriots now hold a commanding 66-41-1 edge against the Bills.
■ Buffalo had fewer wins in the past four seasons combined (22) than it has losses to New England under Belichick (25).
■ Only one other team approaches the Bills’ level of ineptitude against a division rival – Cleveland. The Browns’ loss to the Steelers in Week 1 gave them a 4-25 record against Pittsburgh since 2000. The Lions’ futility is also notable since it has been double-barreled. They’re 6-22 against the Vikings and 6-23 against the Packers since 2000.
It’s an AFC East thing
The Bills are not alone in their failures against the Patriots. None of the other 31 teams has a winning record against New England in the Belichick era. Only one, Carolina, even has a .500 record during that span.
The Dolphins and Jets, who like the Bills play the Patriots twice annually as AFC East rivals, also have fared poorly against New England, though still far better than the Bills. The Jets are 9-19 and the Dolphins, who’ve beaten the Patriots more than anyone in the Belichick era, are 11-18.
“In order to have success in this league you’ve got to do well in your division,” Belichick said this week.
The Patriots have certainly mastered that priority of their head coach. They are 63-18 against AFC East foes since 2001, when they began a stretch of winning 11 division titles in 13 seasons. The runner-up has finished an average of 4.3 games behind New England.
Even in the two years they didn’t win the division, the Patriots still finished tied for the AFC East’s best record. So you’d have to go back to Belichick’s first season to find a year when the Bills – or any other AFC East team – finished with a better record than the Patriots.
Careers came and went in Buffalo for players who never beat the Patriots. So it’s understandable that veteran Bills players like Eric Wood – who told the Buffalo News “this is a team we need to start beating” before yet another loss last December – are angry about being tossed around by the Patriots.
It didn’t have to be this bad
There have been some close calls for the Bills in recent years, which makes the 3-25 mark against the Patriots so agonizing to Bills fans.
Some examples of where the Bills gave away games to the Patriots:
■ Sept. 8, 2013: New England needed a field goal with 5 seconds left to salvage a 23-21 win in Buffalo.
■ Nov. 11, 2012: With 23 seconds left and the Bills on the Patriots’ 15-yard line, Devin McCourty intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick in the end zone to seal a 37-31 win in Foxborough.
■ Sept. 30, 2012: The Bills took a 21-7 lead early in the third quarter before the Patriots exploded for 45 second-half points in a 52-28 win at Buffalo.
■ Jan. 1, 2012: The Bills took a 21-0 lead in the first quarter at Gillette Stadium, only to see the Patriots storm back with the final 49 points of the game.
■ Sept. 14, 2009: The Bills blew an 11-point lead with just more than 2 minutes left on opening night. After the Patriots scored a touchdown with 2:06 left, New England recovered a Bills fumble on the ensuing kickoff to set up the game-winning touchdown in the final minute of the 25-24 victory.
■ Sept. 10, 2006: The Bills blew a 17-7 second-half lead and the Patriots sacked J.P. Losman in the end zone for a game-deciding safety in the 19-17 season-opening win.
■ Oct. 30, 2005: Buffalo blew a 16-7 fourth-quarter lead as Corey Dillon rushed for two touchdowns in the final 7:06 to power a 21-16 win by a Patriots squad buoyed by the return of Tedy Bruschi from a stroke.
Why has it been like this?
Here are four areas that give a glimpse of what’s been wrong with the Bills and right with the Patriots:
■ Coaching instability: While Belichick has built a likely Hall of Fame career in New England grounded in three Super Bowl titles, the Bills have wandered from coach to coach. Wade Phillips was their coach when Belichick arrived in New England, and six more – Gregg Williams, Mike Mularkey, Dick Jauron, Perry Fewell, Chan Gailey, and now Doug Marrone – have followed him in the same span that Belichick has coached the Patriots.
Only Phillips, Williams and Gailey ever notched wins against Belichick.
■ Inferior quarterbacks: The Bills have been on a seemingly endless search for a new starting quarterback – one that has often mirrored their searches for head coaches – throughout the Belichick era. On Sunday, Kyle Orton – just installed as the latest starter – will become the 11th different quarterback to start for the Bills against the Patriots since 2000.
It’s not a glamorous list. Ryan Fitzpatrick (7 starts), Drew Bledsoe (6), J.P. Losman (4), Trent Edwards (4), Doug Flutie (2), Rob Johnson (1), Alex Van Pelt (1), Kelly Holcomb (1), E.J. Manuel (1), and Thad Lewis (1) all have taken turns for Buffalo.
In that same time, the Patriots have used three starters against Buffalo. Bledsoe in 2000 before Brady overtook him and Matt Cassel in 2008 when Brady was hurt. The quarterback play of the two franchises couldn’t contrast more.
■ Talent level: It’s not hard to say the Patriots had better players, with 75 more wins than the Bills in the Belichick era to prove it. But the Bills still had talent. They spent smart first-round draft picks on players who would have good careers and become Pro Bowl regulars – Nate Clements, Willis McGahee, Donte Whitner, Marshawn Lynch, C.J. Spiller. But they also swung and missed on a lot of significant draft picks. First-rounders John McCargo and Aaron Maybin were busts. And when they invested a first-round pick in Losman as their quarterback of the future in 2004 it really set them back. They spent years waiting on Losman, but he would have just a 10-23 record as starter for the Bills.
Meanwhile as the Bills floundered, the Patriots rarely missed on first-round draft picks and kept developing players who would help Brady string together a streak of seasons with at least 10 wins that now stands at 11. By contrast, the Bills haven’t won 10 games since 1999, the last year they made the playoffs.
■ Bad execution and bad luck: As we illustrated, the Bills have had the Patriots on the ropes several times. They should have won the opener in 2009. Had return man Leodis McKelvin knelt down for a touchback with 2:10 to play, Buffalo probably wins. Instead, McKelvin inexplicably ran the kickoff back, lost a fumble deep in his zone and handed a win to the Patriots.
Likewise, in December 2001 the Bills were the victims of bad luck when in overtime a David Patten fumble they appeared to recover was ruled a dead ball before the recovery because an unconscious Patten was loosely touching the ball while his head was out of bounds. The Patriots kept the ball and went on to finish the drive in game-winning field goal. Of course, bad execution had a hand in this loss too as later in the drive Antowain Smith ripped off a 38-yard run where three would-be Buffalo tacklers failed to bring him down. That run set up the winning kick.
The overriding theme of the close calls: The Bills found a way to lose. The Patriots found a way to win.
Will it change?
Sunday’s matchup features two teams tied for first place in the AFC East with 3-2 records. It’s also the beginning of a new era for the Bills, as it will mark the first game under the ownership of Terry Pegula, whose purchase of the team from the estate of the late Ralph Wilson was approved by NFL owners on Wednesday.
The Bills desperately want to announce to the NFL that the new era also means an end to being a doormat for the Patriots.
“We can get sole possession of first place in our division and the guys on this team we have earned that,” Spiller said.
There’s reason for optimism. Orton led the Bills to a win on the road after being installed as the starter last week. He counts a dynamic weapon in rookie receiver Sammy Watkins, selected fourth overall.
The Patriots are certainly vulnerable, with holes in their offense and defense glaring in the first month of the season before last week’s win over Cincinnati.
But the Bills have been here before. They started 5-1 in 2008 before losing to each of their AFC East rivals and spiraling to the familiar confines of 7-9.
So while the Patriots will say the right things about respecting a talented opponent, don’t be surprised if behind the scenes they’re operating with a higher level of confidence in Bills week.
Follow Sean Leahy @leahysean