FOXBOROUGH — Bill Belichick must really like this Bills team.
Anyone in upstate New York would probably jump through a table hearing this, but there’s been quite a bit of Patriots in this Bills turnaround. There’s plenty on the roster and in the coaching and the culture that has helped Buffalo make the playoffs twice in three seasons and reach 10 wins for the first time since 1999 that’s Patriot-like.
“Buffalo’s certainly had a good year,” Bill Belichick said Tuesday morning. “They’ve got a good football team, do a lot of things well. That’s reflected by their record and the way they’ve played.”
The starting point for the Bills revival has to be the hiring of head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane in 2017. McDermott, a defensive-minded coach in an offensive-minded league, wasn’t a hot candidate, but since his hiring has taken the Bills defense from 19th in the NFL to third.
Belichick likes to say that toughness comes from running the ball, stopping the run, and covering kicks and, by that definition, the Bills — at 10-4, a game behind the Patriots — play like a tough team. They’re fifth in rushing, 10th in run defense and 13th in kick coverage. They’re resilient, they can play in the cold, and Josh Allen’s four comeback wins are tied with the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson for the most in the NFL this year.
“They’re a team that’s going to finish the game, we can’t just count them out first half,” said defensive tackle Danny Shelton.
It’s no 28-3, but Buffalo has come back to win from being down 16-0 against the Jets, 14-9 to the Dolphins, 7-0 to the Cowboys, and 10-7 to the Steelers.
“They’re a team that fights,” said Patriots wide receiver Phillip Dorsett.
They also have a more obvious Patriots connection on the staff in offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who was the Patriots’ tight ends coach from 2014-2016 after serving as an offensive and defensive assistant and wide receivers coach with the team.
The parallels run through the personnel department, too. Beane and his pro scouts have bought low on players who weren’t producing elsewhere but who have blossomed in Buffalo.
Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, a waiver-wire pickup last October, leads the team with 9.5 sacks. Isaiah McKenzie has the third-most receiving yards among Bills wideouts (236) and was also a waiver claim last year. The ageless Frank Gore has 573 rushing yards and is making $2 million.
Dorsett said that when he’s watched the Bills, it looks like they’re a close team, which often happens when players feel like they’re somewhere that believes in them when other teams haven’t. Kyle Van Noy comes to mind first, but there are a half-dozen Patriots players who would say the same thing about their team.
“I wouldn’t say that’s the only way you win but it’s definitely a winning formula,” Dorsett said. “They’ve got a lot of good guys in that locker room, a lot of guys that play hard, a lot of guys that, I wouldn’t say were castoffs but at the end of the day, you never know anybody’s situation, and they just go out there and pick guys that can play and that fit their scheme.”
That’s a good formula. The Bills still have plenty of things they haven’t yet accomplished (beating the Patriots this season, for starters) but the days when they were a floundering mess are starting to seem further in the past.
There’s a scene from a long-since-forgotten conference call between then-Bills coach Rex Ryan and a group of Patriots reporters in 2016 that keeps coming to mind this week, if only to illustrate how long ago it feels.
Things got a little silly and a little testy when Ryan decided he didn’t appreciate being asked how he could call himself “an above-average coach” when he had a below-average regular-season record against Belichick compared with other NFL coaches.
Ryan responded by working the phrase “above average” into every subsequent answer he could. Tyrod Taylor? “Above-average quarterback.” The Patriots running game back then? “Above-average run game.” Frankly, it was pretty funny, but it probably only made an impression because the actual football team wasn’t above average. No danger of that now.
It’s been a long time since any of the Patriots’ AFC East competition has had sustained success. If the Bills can do it, it won’t be the only thing they have in common with the Patriots.
Nora Princiotti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.