Buffalo Bills: Beating the Patriots officially changes AFC East guard

The Buffalo Bills were division champions either way, but a national display of power meant a little more considering who it came against.

Trophies for division titles don’t exist in the NFL. There was no trophy ceremony after the Buffalo Bills won their first AFC East honor last weekend in the Rocky Mountains. Sure, a good portion of Bills Mafia flocked to Buffalo Niagara International Airport to welcome them home, but there was no, say, sword or official championship belt to display upon landing.

But the Bills were more than happy to stage a coronation ceremony in front of a national audience on Monday night.

Granted their fourth consecutive nationally televised contest, the Bills added insult to the New England Patriots’ injury to the tune of a 38-9 shellacking at Gillette Stadium. Buffalo (12-3) dominated every aspect of the victory, outgaining New England 474-201, limiting them to 11 first downs, forcing a quarterback change that signified that the search for Tom Brady’s successor is anything but over, and causing the eternally stoic Belichick to lose his cool on an innocent sideline phone.

The victory is the Patriots’ most one-sided loss of the Belichick era and the worst endured at the modern Foxboro stadium since its 2002 opening.

On paper, the victory over a Patriots team that fell to 6-9 on the season. Buffalo did what they were supposed to do. They did a little thing, thoroughly defeat a squad removed from the playoff picture, extraordinarily well.

But there’s no denying that the opponent played a role in Buffalo’s elation.

“We’re nobody’s little brother. We’re not nobody’s little cousin, little dog,” offensive lineman Dion Dawkins said of the win, per Sean T. McGuire of NESN. “We are here. You’re going to respect us and you’re going to play us hard. You’re going to circle us on your schedule.”

Monday marked the exorcising of horrifying gridiron demons beyond imagination, malevolent football spirits that had haunted Western New York since the turn of the century. The two most dreaded days in Buffalo in recent years…other than opening night of Sabres season…have been the yearly get-togethers with the Patriots. New England entered 2020 with a downright jaw-dropping 35-5 advantage in the new millennium. One of the rare Buffalo victories came when Brady was serving a suspension for his role in the infamous “Deflategate” incident.

But with Brady having absconded to Tampa Bay (and joining the Bills in the NFL playoffs), the Patriots have fallen and the questions have only accumulated. The Bills took a hard-fought 24-21 decision from New England in the Orchard Park portion in November and had a chance to earn their first double against the Patriots since 1999. They entered the game as Foxboro favorites and were in no danger whatsoever of losing their status as division champion.

A nationally televised opportunity to earn that elusive sweep, however, was a perfect chance to stage a changing of the guard through symbolism often found only in storybooks.

The Patriots’ utter dominance in the Buffalo series often served as fuel toward their unprecedented streak of AFC East titles, winning all but three since 2000. Those wins over the Bills (as well as wins over fellow also-rans from East Rutherford and Miam) were unimpressive and easy to dismiss on paper. But New England did those little things extraordinarily well, and did so on a consistent basis. It’s part of the reason why they have, more often than not, been among at least the final four contenders come Super Bowl time.

Buffalo’s synergy in symbolism and the timing of one of their most dominant efforts in recent memory could not have been better. Whereas New England faces indefinite questions about their franchise quarterback slot after Cam Newton was mercifully pulled from the proceedings for Jarrett Stidham, Josh Allen threw four more touchdown passes and strengthened his MVP case. The Patriots’ shortcomings on both the free agent and draft fronts were made all the more apparent through the efforts of Buffalo acquisitions like Stefon Diggs (9 receptions, 145 yards, 3 touchdowns). Shown to be unstoppable to opposing defense over the past few weeks, Allen and Diggs have also laid waste to the Bills’ record books, shattering historic marks left and right en route to AFC East supremacy. Diggs is now the Bills’ single-season leader in receptions and yardage, surpassing campaigns from Eric Moulds, while Allen broke Jim Kelly’s long-standing touchdown pass record.

Elsewhere, day three depth gem Siran Neal, normally a safety, channeled his high school days at Miami Killian and picked up a first down through a fake punt reception from fellow former Cougar Jaquan Johnson…another choice found at the tail-end of the draft.

Those who bore the most brutal form of New England-based punishment played their part in the victory as well. Reserve tight end Lee Smith, used primarily for his blocking talents, scored a four-yard touchdown that permanently shifted momentum after a New England scoring drive…one that proved to be their last thanks to a sterling defensive effort from a Bills defense featuring Jerry Hughes. Smith and Hughes are the lone holdovers from Buffalo’s 17-year playoff drought and the New England nightmares that came with it.

There was no better way for Buffalo to inform New England that there was a new sheriff in town and to warn the rest of the NFL that their Super Bowl dreams are just as legitimate as those conjured in Kansas City.

“We’re going to come out swinging out the gate. That’s just Buffalo Bills football,” Hughes said in a report from Matt Parrino of Syracuse.com. “We find a way to put our backs against the wall, that’s our mentality. Once that kickoff happens, you’re getting us. You’re getting dogs, you’re getting controlled aggression. We’re coming at you.”

“This is an organization, being the Patriots, that (has) given the Bills fits over the years,” Bills head coach Sean McDermott said in the postgame, per Sal Maiorana of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “It’s a win in both games against the Patriots and then to win the way we did tonight, I think it just speaks volumes about our players and coaches and the team that (general manager Brandon Beane) has put on the field.”

Hughes was all too gleeful to add that, after years of enduring New England’s bullying, it was fun to be on the dealing end of it.

“I was telling some of the guys on the sideline, I haven’t had this feeling in Foxborough ever,” Hughes said in the Parrino update. “This was a nice feeling to come back here in this stadium and return a nice punch in the face. It felt good.”

One could write a book about the dubious streaks this magical season has ended. Buffalo knows their most vital streaks…particularly those of postseason futility…loom large.

But this slaying of the metaphorical New England dragon shouldn’t just scare the Patriots’ faithful…but the rest of the league as the playoffs approach.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

Buffalo Bills: 3 stars from Monday’s win at New England

The changing of the guard in the AFC East was officially completed with the Buffalo Bills’ blowout win in Foxboro.

The holiday may be a time for forgiveness and unity…but the Buffalo Bills weren’t interested in bestowing such virtues against one of their greatest tormenters.

Buffalo (12-3) put up 476 yards of offense and watched Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs make team history in their seasonal wrap-up with the New England Patriots. The ensuing 38-9 victory allowed the Bills to clinch their first season sweep of the six-time champions since 1999. They also earned the most one-sided victory for an opponent at Gillette Stadium since its opening in 2002, breaking a record set my the San Francisco 49ers earlier this season.

The Bills are no longer able to catch the Kansas City Chiefs for the top seed in the AFC playoffs but are now guaranteed to place no worse than third in the opening bracket. Buffalo currently holds the second seed thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker with Pittsburgh. Such a seeding will also allow the Bills to avoid the defending champion Chiefs until the potential conference title game.

ESM has game balls to hand out from a downright historic evening on the road…

3rd Star: TE Lee Smith

2 receptions, 31 yards, 1 TD

Smith is one of two leftovers from the Bills’ postseason drought, currently in the midst of his second stint and sixth season with a charging buffalo on his helmet. Used primarily as a blocker, Smith almost got into the scorebook last week but his touchdown in Denver was erased by a penalty. The Buffalo offense had him covered this time around, though, as he would score a four-yard touchdown in the latter stages of the first half to put Buffalo up 17-9. Smith would later earn a 27-yard reception in the fourth quarter to set up Allen and Diggs’ third and final scoring hookup on the evening. His 31-yard output was his highest since November 2018, when he was a member of the Raiders.

2nd Star: QB Josh Allen

27-36, 320 yards, 4 TD, 4 carries, 35 yards

Another week, another breakthrough performance for Allen, who is eliminating any remaining doubters he had left. More Buffalo history awaited him on Monday, as Allen’s fourth and final score of the evening, his 34th of the season, broke Jim Kelly’s single-season record for touchdown passes. That mark had stood since 1991. Relieved for Matt Barkley in the fourth quarter, Allen is 40 yards away from breaking Drew Bledsoe’s record tally for single-campaign yardage.

1st Star: WR Stefon Diggs

9 receptions, 145 yards, 3 TD

Finally armed with a team capable of conquering the AFC East, the Bills were more than happy to flex their muscles in front of a New England team that has bullied them since the turn of the century. Diggs, engaged in a war of words with J.C. Jackson all night, and his incredible run-after-the-catch prowess were some of their most prominent displays of supremacy, His 50-yard score just before halftime more or less snapped the Patriots’ will. That score allowed Diggs to make Buffalo history in style, as he surpassed a pair of historic years from Eric Moulds to become the Bills’ single-season leader in receiving yardage. Diggs is also on pace to finish the year as the NFL’s leader in both receptions and yardage, which would be a first for a Bill in both categories.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills: Division clinch means everything to playoff drought leftovers

The Buffalo Bills’ AFC East title meant just a little more to Jerry Hughes and Lee Smith, the two leftovers from their lean years.

Arguing over who is most deserving of the Bills’ long-awaited division title is extraordinarily moot. The team has captured its success through a strong sense of unity and would likely scoff at such a debate. But it’s safe to say that this one might mean a little something more to Jerry Hughes and Lee Smith.

No one on the current Bills roster has played more games with a charging pair of buffalo on their helmet than Hughes and Smith, respectively serving as a defensive lineman and reserve tight end. Hughes has partaken in 103 games since coming over in a 2013 trade with Indianapolis while Smith has shown up in 80 contests over two Buffalo stints. In comparison, guard Dion Dawkins and long snapper Reid Ferguson, both 2017 arrivals, are next on the list with 62.

As the longest-tenured Bills on the roster, Hughes and Smith are the only players in Western New York to play on-field witnesses to the dryest spell in Buffalo football history: a 17-year playoff drought that becomes a distant memory with each passing week. This historic season has seen the end of many dubious steaks, including an AFC East division title drought that has stopped at a quarter-century. A good part of Hughes and Smith’s respective tenures, however, have been consumed by building those streaks, even if they personally had little to no role in the gridiron malarkey.

Hughes, for example, has been one of the more reliable veteran pass rushers in football since debuting as a first-round pick of the Colts in 2010. Since the 2012 season, only nine weeks of regular season NFL football have been played without Hughes taking the field…and that’s only because his team had a bye week. In that span, Hughes ranks in the top 25 in sacks (55), quarterback hits (120), and tackles for a loss (80). Hughes has seen his share of individual accolades as well, appearing on NFL Network’s Top 100 Players list in 2015 (No. 63).

But the lack of team success always irritated Hughes. While he partook in a pair of playoff games during his three years with the Colts, he was subjected to several frustrating seasons of football purgatory in Orchard Park. Those campaigns were often defined by wasting fast starts, such as their 5-3 opening in 2014 that led to a 9-7 campaign.

As serviceable comrades dwindled in the defensive locker room, Hughes took on the mantle of locker room leader. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier saw that brand of leadership during Buffalo’s October win over the New York Jets. Facing a strong challenge from a desperate opponent in East Rutherford, Frazier remarked that the only thing more impressive than Hughes’ play on the field was his composure off of it. The assistant coach mentioned that Hughes’ tenacious brand of defense encouraged him to raise the pressure on opponents following one-sided losses to fellow AFC contenders from Tennessee and Kansas City over the fall. It paid off in the form of an 18-10 win over the Jets, one that saw the Bills earn six sacks and allow only 191 yards.

“We didn’t talk about things that needed to be done with the D-line, it was more Jerry taking it upon himself as a leader to pull those guys together,” Frazier said, per John Wawrow of the Associated Press. “Jerry was so positive, and encouraging his teammates on the sideline. I remember saying to myself, `Man, that’s what you need out of one of your star players who’s a leader.‘”

Hughes was the headliner in the aforementioned New York victory, picking up six tackles, two sacks, an interception, and a forced fumble. He was awarded the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Week Award for his efforts.

In the fateful win in the Rockies, Hughes put a dagger in the Broncos during the early stages of the third quarter. Immediately after Buffalo build a 28-13 lead, Hughes treated Bills fans to a showcase from the past, namely from his days as a running back at Stephen F. Austin High School in Sugar Land, Texas. The defender dodged five would-be tacklers from Denver to score a 21- yard touchdown, giving the Bills a 35-13 advantage. From there on out, a countdown began to commemorate the Bills’ first AFC East crown since 1996.

Eschewing expectations, Hughes’ postgame attitude mirrored his teammate’s jovial mood, but the division title has proven to be anything but gridiron nirvana for a man desperately seeking it.

“Man, it feels amazing,” Hughes said in a report from Jourdon LaBarber of BuffaloBills.com, clad in a celebratory t-shirt bearing the insignia “Won Not Done. “This is something that we talked about once I got to this organization. We spoke about bringing a division championship home to Buffalo. So, it feels great to be a part of this team, the way we did it, the way Sean and Brandon Beane were able to assemble the team together and put guys in the right spot so we can be success and the results are showing.”

“I know that we’ve still got a lot more to accomplish. That’s what I like about these guys. We can enjoy a milestone and still understand that the goal is still not reached. So, I’m excited. We’re going to enjoy this tonight and then we’re going to get ready for next week.”

Hughes did enjoy at least a taste of postseason glory last season, earning a career-best three sacks during Buffalo’s playoff cameo in Houston.

Smith may be one of the lesser-heralded members of the Bills’ roster, though his impact cannot be denied. The former fifth-round pick has built a sizable career since experiencing his first NFL release before taking his first snap, bid farewell by the New England Patriots at the end of his first training camp. He partook in parts of four seasons with the Bills before signing with the Raiders in 2015. Smith was asked to rejoin the Bills in 2019 and he was quick to accept, as the tight end was drawn to a Buffalo reunion by the good vibes he drew from the organization, particularly its new direction under current owners Kim and Terry Pegula.

“Mr. and Mrs. Pegula have spared no expense around here. It’s invigorating and makes the players feel not just respected but appreciated. This place is first class,” Smith said in a 2019 episode of team program One Bills Live. “I’m all about enjoying coming to work everyday. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to make a decision of where you want to go then my thing has always been that being around good men that I want to work for.”

Smith’s modern work has mostly come through special teams participation. He did earn a one-yard score in Buffalo’s September win over the Los Angeles Rams and seemed poised to add to that tally on Saturday, but his fourth-quarter catch from Josh Allen was called back due to a penalty.

Buffalo (11-3) is still in contention for one of the top seeds in the AFC’s playoff bracket. Their next contest comes on the road against the New England Patriots next Monday night (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags