Philosopher George Santayana warned that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Pioneering automobile magnate Henry Ford told us that history was bunk. And singer Sam Cooke (clearly paying no heed to Santayana, but perhaps to Ford) crooned in the very first line of a catchy, 1960 hit song that he didn’t know much about history.
If Cooke were alive and living in Western New York in 2019, he undoubtedly would be made aware of the ugly history of how Tom Brady’s Bunch has lorded over its AFC East brethren for two decades. And this scourge will be front and center when the unbeaten New England Patriots visit raucous New Era Field Sunday to play the unbeaten Buffalo Bills. As the late, great Voice of the Bills, Van Miller, reminded us before every kickoff, “Fasten your seatbelts.” And for this game, he might have added, “Insert your ear plugs,” because decibel levels may reach B52-engine revving levels.
Brady and his coach Bill Belichick are reviled in these parts, long ago surpassing Miami Dolphins legend Don Shula as public enemy No. 1. And the sports hatred is well-earned, because no player in the history of team sports has dominated an opponent the way Brady has dominated the Bills. This generation’s Tom Terrific has thrown 69 touchdown passes and just 24 interceptions while compiling a 30-3 record vs. Buffalo. That win total includes 15 at New Era (and the Ralph) and is the most ever by a quarterback against an NFL team. For further context, Brady’s 8,248 passing yards against Buffalo would place him seventh on the Bills all-time passing list.
The Wizards of Odds in Las Vegas do take series’ history into account when making the line, which is another reason they’ve established the Patriots as touchdown road favorites this Sunday. (That line, though, is more a reflection of this year’s history, which has seen New England outscore its opponents, 106-17, and the 42-years-young Brady average more than 300 yards per game while tossing seven touchdown passes and no interceptions.)
Buffalo fans gladly would welcome outcomes similar to 2003 or 2011, when the Bills handed Brady his only losses in Orchard Park. The victory 16 years ago was a 31-0 beatdown in which Brady was picked off four times and finished with a putrid 22.5 passer rating, one of the worst of his Hall of Fame career. The win eight seasons ago was much more dramatic, as Buffalo again intercepted four of his passes and won a 34-31 shootout on Rian Lindell’s 28-yard field goal as time expired.
Those games may seem like ancient history, but do provide a smidgen of hope for long-suffering Bills fans. And if they’re looking for some more encouraging past-is-prologue stuff, they’ll be heartened to learn that Bills Coach Sean McDermott’s defenses have played Brady tough in their four meetings. In fact, Brady has three touchdown passes and four interceptions in those games, while posting an 80.8 passer rating, 17 points below his career average and nearly 26 points below his 2019 average. That said, the Patriots still found a way to win each of those games by an average score of 27-9.
There is no mystery to beating the ageless Brady, who clearly is playing as if he were 10 years younger. The teams that have enjoyed success against him usually have pressured up the middle and prevented him from stepping into his throws. And they’ve also hit him hard and often. The problem, though, is that you have to be able to do that with your down linemen because Brady is a master at deciphering blitzes and making you pay for coming after him with extra rushers. And he is among the NFL’s best at getting rid of the ball in a hurry. With a top-tiered safety tandem of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, the Bills are masters at disguising coverages and preventing big pass plays, so this could be an interesting cat-and-mouse game between them and Brady.
Still, for the Bills to pull off the upset, they’re going to need a dynamic performance from their offense, especially second-year quarterback Josh Allen. I’m intrigued to see what creative offensive coordinator Brian Daboll dials up this week. The former University of Rochester football player and Belichick protege needs to be bold, without being reckless. Come out in the no-huddle. Speed things up. Dictate the action. Play to win.
Clearly, the Bills can’t afford bone-headed plays like the momentum-changing interception Allen tossed against Cincinnati. By not throwing the ball away, he almost threw the game away. Do that against a Belichick team, and you’re toast. You aren’t coming back to win. Fortunately, the 23-year-old work-in-progress Allen showed his moxie when it mattered most against the winless Bengals, guiding the Bills on a game-winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, the fifth time he’s done that in just 15 NFL starts.
The great thing about this is that Buffalo still will be a strong playoff contender even if it loses to the Patriots, so why not go for it? As I wrote last week, the schedule is unfolding rather nicely. With two games remaining against the tanking Dolphins, plus single games against the New York Jets, Tennessee Titans, Big Ben-less Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver Broncos and Washington, 10, maybe even 11 wins, isn’t out of the question.
And if that happens, perhaps this will be like 1988 all over again — the year when Buffalo went 12-4 and laid the foundation for their unprecedented Super Bowl run. Now that’s the type of history Bills Mafia would love to see repeated.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.