The Buffalo Bills aren’t facing the New England Patriots Sunday at Orchard Park, N.Y. They’re facing them at Proving Grounds Park. That’s what sure-to-be raucous New Era Field is set to become for the Bills and their long suffering fans.
Bills’ fans have been coming to their rundown old stadium for 20 years now to face Tom Brady and the Patriots. Every time they arrive with painted faces and leave with long faces. It’s as predictable as gray clouds over Buffalo.
The Bills are 3-0 for the first time since 2011 and only the third time since 1992. They are one of only four teams in the top 10 in both offense and defense. They have a stout defense and a bold young quarterback in Josh Allen. According to the analytics, they have a nearly 75% chance of making the playoffs this season because of their hot start. But will all their dreams be doused again by Brady and the Patriots?
That’s the question Buffalo fans are nervously awaiting to have answered and underneath the face paint they fear the worst and rightfully so.
Are the Bills improved? Yes.
Is their second-year quarterback less mistake prone then a year ago? It seems so.
Is their defense stingy? Indeed.
Yet even in the face of such positivity there is another set of numbers they must face and they are ominous ones. Tom Brady is 33-4 against them since becoming a starter in New England 19 years ago.
Worse, Brady has won in Proving Grounds Park 15 times. To give that some perspective that would be the fourth most by a BILLS’ quarterback in Buffalo’s history, exceeded only by Hall of famer Jim Kelly (58) and Joe Ferguson (39).
Fourth most wins in Buffalo BY A BILLS QUARTERBACK. Consider that for a minute and watch your painted face turn into a scowl.
“I think it’s always gratifying when you go in there and then by the end of the game you look up and there’s only Patriots fans left,’’ Brady said this week. “I always think that’s pretty cool.’’
Bills’ fans think itspretty cold, to be honest about it.
Some are looking at Buffalo’s 3-0 start and point out it’s been built on the backsides of teams with an aggregate 1-8 record this season but much the same could be said about the defending Super Bowl champions. So those numbers don’t really tell much of the story that’s likely to be written Sunday. The telling numbers are the ones that say at every turn that, yes, the Bills are better but not better than the Patriots.
They are sixth in fewest yards allowed and eighth in most yards gained, signs of solid offensive/defensive balance. New England is first in both.
Buffalo’s defense is top 10 in most everything including critical third-down defense. New England’s is first.
The Bills are eighth in rushing defense and ninth in passing defense. New England is first in both.
Read those numbers and you begin to see the problem of proving yourself against the Patriots and we haven’t even gotten to Brady. So let’s do that now.
Tom Brady vs. Josh Allen. Enough said.
That’s no knock on Allen, who has yet to start a full season worth of games (this will be his 15th NFL start). He has improved his completion percentage markedly from an inaccurate 52.8% a year ago to 64.1% thus far this season. His percentage of interceptions is down from 3.8 to 2.9. He has already led two game-winning drives and has the third highest fourth-quarter QB rating in the league at 125. Clearly he is improving, albeit against some weak defenses.
Particularly troublesome for the Patriots, both this Sunday and throughout the Belichick era, is that Allen can make plays with his legs as well as his rocket arm. Allen has more rushing yards than any quarterback in the NFL save Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson. He can run himself out of trouble and run you into trouble. He can throw on the run and run on the run. Thus he can make plays with all his extremities. Yet and still he is not Brady because he doesn’t know yet what Brady knows, which is to say all the ways a defense plans to attack him.
“I’ve been at this for a while, so I know what they’re trying o do and they know what I’m trying to do,’’ Brady said this week about Buffalo’s formidable defense. “I mean, I’ll figure it out once the ball is snapped. So, try to get it to the open guy and let them do something with it.’’
Having lost Antonio Brown to ego gone wild and likely Julian Edelman to dented ribs as well as playing behind a line that has already lost 40% of its starters to the injured reserve list, Brady will face a stiff challenge in Buffalo and he knows it. But what the Bills are facing is more than the best team in pro football and perhaps the best quarterback of all-time. They’re facing a mirror filled with 20 years of images of painted faces turned to sad clown faces. Can they paint a different picture this Sunday?
That’s what Proving Ground Park is all about for these Buffalo Bills. Proving who they are. Or who they are not.