ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was opening his junior year at Harvard. Receiver David Nelson was still a few months from getting his driver’s license. And rookie defensive lineman Marcell Dareus was entering the eighth grade.
It was September 2003, and that’s what these current Bills players were doing the last time Buffalo beat the New England Patriots.
“Ha, ha, ha. That’s crazy,” Dareus said, previously unaware of the Bills’ dreadful past against their AFC East rival. “But now I’m with the Bills, and we’re going to see if we can turn it around.”
Many others have tried and miserably failed over a perennially predictable stretch in which the Patriots have been unbeatable when it comes to facing Buffalo. New England has won 15 straight since a 31-0 season-opening loss in 2003, and 20 of the past 21.
So what in the name of Sam Adams returning an interception for a touchdown in Buffalo’s last victory over New England makes the Bills believe Sunday’s outcome might be different?
“We have a lot of confidence,” said linebacker Chris Kelsay, one of four players left on the Bills to have enjoyed a win over the Patriots. “You hear a lot about how they’ve had our number. That’s fine and dandy to the outsiders. But we have a lot of confidence with guys in this room, and we’re not going to lay down for anybody. We’re preparing to win this game.”
For a franchise that’s not made the playoffs in 11 seasons, the Bills have newfound confidence. It stems from a surprising 2-0 start, sparked by a blistering offense that’s produced 79 points and coming off a game in which it scored touchdowns on five consecutive second-half drives in rallying to a 38-35 win over Oakland.
The Patriots (2-0) have confidence, too. And more important, they also have Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, a coach and quarterback tandem that’s flustered and overwhelmed far more opponents than Buffalo over a decade of dominance.
And no offense, Bills fans, Brady doesn’t feel your pain.
“We don’t feel sorry for anybody,” Brady said. “We’re trying to go out there and win. That’s what our job is. And over the past whatever, 10 years, we’ve done that.”
History aside, Brady’s not overlooking the Bills and neither is Belichick. The coach maintains a one-game-at-a-time focus while going out of his way to ensure to not provide opponents any bulletin-board material.
So there’s no point asking what Belichick thinks of the opening betting line favoring the Patriots by 9 points.
“I can honestly tell you I never even look at it. When the game starts it’s 0-0,” he said. “There’s no favorite. There’s no underdog. The team that plays the best is the team that’s going to win.”
That team has usually been the Patriots.
The 15-game win streak is the NFL’s third longest, and five short of matching the league-record 20-game string Miami had over Buffalo in the 1970s.
New England’s beaten Buffalo in every fashion. The Patriots won coming from behind — there was a 25-24 victory to open the 2009 season in which New England scored twice in the final 2:06 to overcome an 11-point deficit. And the Patriots won blowouts, the biggest a 56-10 prime-time victory in November 2007.
Add it up and the Patriots have outscored the Bills 435-194 over that 15-game stretch.
And Brady, who’s thrown 39 of his 268 career touchdown passes against Buffalo, is showing no signs of slowing. Brady’s leading the league with 940 yards passing and seven touchdowns, and guiding an offense that’s produced 1,126 yards.
Coming off a 35-21 win over San Diego, the Patriots have set a franchise record by scoring 30 points in 10 straight games. That’s four short of matching the NFL mark set by the St. Louis Rams in 1999-2000.
The production on offense has been key in hiding the deficiencies of a young defense that’s very susceptible against the pass. The Pats have allowed 762 yards passing, including 416 against Chad Henne in a season-opening 38-24 win at Miami.
That could well work in the Bills’ favor.
Buffalo’s longtime popgun offense is starting to click under Fitzpatrick. He’s a seventh-year journeyman leading a self-described “No-Name” offense that’s off to a prolific start.
Fitzpatrick’s seven touchdowns are tied with Brady and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford for the league lead. The offense has scored 10 touchdowns in two games, something it didn’t do until Week 6 as part of an 0-8 start last year.
Beating the Kansas City Chiefs and Raiders to open the season is one thing. If the Bills intend to show they’ve arrived as contenders, beating the Patriots presents an indelible opportunity.
“This is the greatest opportunity we’ll have,” running back Fred Jackson said of the chance to finally beat New England. “They’re a great team, but we feel like we’re a great team. … It will be a good test and a measuring stick for us.”