Patriots fans, if you want to know how the NFL’s other half lives, the half without a household name leading the huddle, look no further than the Buffalo Bills.
The Patriots’ and Tom Brady’s favorite foils, the Bills, come to Gillette Stadium Sunday for the regular-season finale. The Bills are a warm-up act for the Patriots, who already have locked up the top seed in the AFC, a first-round bye, and homefield advantage.
If Buffalo scores a win in Sunday’s meaningless game, the Bills will have their first winning season since 2004 and just their second this century. The Patriots have had 14 consecutive winning seasons, coinciding with Brady’s ascension to the quarterback throne in 2001.
It’s a quarterback league, which is why the Patriots may have to revisit Brady’s contract situation this offseason. As of Saturday, the final three years and $24 million of Brady’s 2013 contract extension are fully guaranteed. He will make $7 million in 2015, $8 million in 2016 and $9 million in 2017. His salary cap charges in those seasons will be $13 million, $14 million and $15 million.
That’s Black Friday value for a quarterback who is having a Most Valuable Player-type season, even a 37-year-old one who was allegedly on a steeper decline than San Francisco’s famous Lombard Street.
Brady’s current contract ranks him 17th among NFL quarterbacks in average annual value. QB luminaries such as Andy Dalton, Alex Smith, Carson Palmer and Jay Cutler — combined playoff wins equal two — rank ahead of Saint Thomas of San Mateo.
Cutler is scheduled to make $44 million over the next three seasons. His 2015 base salary of $15.5 million is fully guaranteed. $10 million of his $16 million 2016 base salary is guaranteed if he is on the roster the third day of the 2015 league year. He has a $12.5 million base salary for 2017.
Brady’s quarterback contemporary and historical rival Peyton Manning has a contract that averages $19.2 million per season. He is due $19 million each of the next two seasons, the final two of his contract. Those salaries are guaranteed if Manning, who turns 39 in March, is on the Denver roster on the final day of the preceding league year. (The final day of the 2014 league year is March 9, 2015.)
Brady is worth more than $24 million over the next three seasons to the Patriots.
Forbes valued the Patriots’ franchise at $2.6 billion, the second most valuable franchise in the NFL. Patriots coach Bill Belichick is widely believed to be the highest-paid coach in the NFL, his contract guarded like the nuclear launch codes.
At the time of Brady’s five-year, $57 million extension in 2013, one member of his camp said, “They don’t have a wing in the Hall of Fame for most highly paid players,” justifying the deal.
However, this person also referred to the numbers in the final three years as potential “place mats” if Brady is playing at a high level.
After a season in which Brady has compensated for fluctuating offensive line play, an inconsistent rushing attack and reversed his own lack of mobility to guide the Patriots to the league’s top scoring offense, he would appear to have some leverage to ask for a pay hike.
Brady has topped 30 touchdown passes (33) for the fifth time in his career and 4,000 yards (4,029) for the fourth straight year. Per usual, he has done more with less than his fellow high-profile passers.
A healthy Rob Gronkowski is Brady’s only real game-changer.
Sure, Tony Romo looks like an MVP candidate when you surround him with an impregnable fortress of an offensive line, the NFL’s leading rusher in DeMarco Murray, a Canton-worthy tight end in Jason Witten, and a freakish wide receiver in Dez Bryant whose catch radius is the size of Central Park.
The NFL’s salary cap is expected to increase next year and the Patriots have roughly $5.7 million of cap space. Some of that money has to be reserved for retaining cornerback Darrelle Revis. But sweetening Brady’s contract and lowering his cap hit with a renegotiation/extension could aid that pursuit.
Make all the jokes you want about avocado ice cream and neuropsychologists, but there was a reason Brady revealed his previously clandestine training methods in a Sports Illustrated piece this month.
He was making the case that his shelf life as a franchise quarterback is longer than accepted biology and NFL history dictate. It’s a case he has to make with his successor now on the roster.
We should get a brief glimpse into life after TB12 on Sunday, as Jimmy Garoppolo is expected to play.
Garoppolo, who also is signed through 2017, might be the next Aaron Rodgers.
But the Patriots shouldn’t be in a rush to move on to the Next Guy.
The Bills and their fans know what it’s like to wander through the quarterback wilderness. It’s easy to get lost.
From 2000 to 2014, the Bills have used 17 quarterbacks. They’ve put familiar names such as Doug Flutie, Drew Bledsoe and Ryan Fitzpatrick under center and obscure ones like Levi Brown, Jeff Tuel and Thad Lewis, all in vain.
Buffalo still hasn’t found a quarterback that can return the Bills to the glory years of Jim Kelly, or even the playoffs. The Bills have the longest playoff drought in the NFL. They haven’t tasted the postseason since 1999.
It’s like those insidious DirecTV commercials with the bizarro Rob Lowes. The Patriots are the handsome Rob Lowe of the AFC East. The Bills are hirsute Rob Lowe, the one with arm curtains.
In a cruel twist for quarterback-longing Bills fans, some of Brady’s best numbers are against the Bills. He has more regular-season victories (23), touchdown passes (58), and 300-yard games (eight) against Buffalo than any other team.
The Bills know the only thing more costly than paying an elite quarterback is not having one to pay.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.