A win would be the Bills' biggest in two decades - The Buffalo News

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A win would be the Bills' biggest in two decades

Here's a depressing exercise: Trying to put together a list of the Bills' greatest wins of the millennium -- otherwise known as the longest current playoff drought in the four major professional sports.

Can you get to five? Three?

The Bills haven't been above .500 after 10 games since the 2000 season, which doesn't lend itself to monumental matchups. They got to 7-4 that year when Rob Johnson lunged to the cone for a late TD in Kansas City. The following week, linebacker Sam Cowart was having the game of his life against Tampa Bay before suffering a severe ankle injury. They lost four in a row. Cowart was never the same.

I dredge this up because that KC game, which took place more than 16 years ago, is probably one of the top five wins of the drought. That's how bad it is. Most memorable victory of the Dick Jauron regime, anyone? Crowning triumph of the J.P. Losman era?

Someone suggested that the home win over the Packers two years ago was No. 1. It was a rousing win over Aaron Rodgers and kept them alive in the playoff race with two games to go. They fell apart in Oakland the next week, but that game does rank very high.

To me, the biggest win was the home victory over New England in 2011, the game that ended the Bills' 15-game losing streak to the Pats and raised their record to 3-0. It was the high point for Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was at the top of the passing stats and a hot story around the NFL. But any skeptical person knew it wasn't sustainable.

I'll stop before it gets too painful, and come to the point. If the Bills beat the Patriots Sunday at New Era Field, it will be the biggest win since their last playoff victory, a home rout of the Dolphins in Don Shula's final game on Dec. 30, 1995.

Sure, it's debatable. It's hard to predict what would happen afterwards. They might win and go on to lose seven in a row, as they did later in the 2011 season after reaching 5-2. But when you consider the circumstances, the opponent, the potential playoff ramifications and the people involved, it's hard to imagine a bigger victory.

First of all, it's against the Patriots, the class of the league, the generational scourge of the AFC East, a team whose stunning run of success directly parallels the Bills' drought. Since Tom Brady took over as quarterback in 2001, they have never been swept by a division foe in the regular season. The last six times that an AFC East team won the first meeting, the Pats won the rematch by an average margin of 28 points.

Beating them for a second time in a calendar month would restore the sense of the Bills as a serious contender. An upset of Brady, who is 25-3 against them and looking to tie Brett Favre's record for wins against a single team, would reverberate around the NFL and draw the Bills back within a game of New England in the division race.

Coming on the heels of last week's discouraging defeat in Miami, a loss would drop the Bills to 4-4 -- and 1-4 in the conference. It would make their four-game winning streak seem like a distant mirage, built against weak and compromised opposition.

So Sunday's game is a huge opportunity as they approach the midpoint of Rex Ryan's second season as head coach. A win would help to validate Ryan as a defensive mastermind and a leader of a resilient team that was able to bounce back from a tough loss, the way they rallied from an 0-2 start that had everyone burying them.

A victory would do wonders for Tyrod Taylor, who has struggled to prove himself as a franchise quarterback, worthy of a $90 million extension. It would also elevate Doug Whaley's stature around the league and be the high point as sports owners for the Pegulas, whose hockey team has struggled out of the gate this season.

Above all, it would be a transcendent win because it seems so unlikely. When the Bills started 0-2, Ryan said it was the perfect time to face the Cardinals and Pats, both of whom reached conference title games last season. But this is hardly an ideal time to face the Pats, who have been riding high since Brady returned from his four-game DeflateGate suspension.

"I'd much rather scheme against some other team, the teams down at the bottom than at the top," said Ryan. "This team's ranked No. 1 in power rankings and they've won our division forever. But as a competitor, you want to see how you stand up against the very best, and we'll find out on Sunday how we stand up to these guys."

The problem is, they'll make their stand with a skeleton crew, at least on offense. They might be down their top four receivers, depending on Robert Woods' availability. It's difficult to imagine Taylor engaging Brady in a shootout in the likely event that Bills have to step outside Ryan's conservative running formula and throw to win.

LeSean McCoy will probably miss the game with a hamstring injury. Ryan has himself to blame for that one. He should have held McCoy out of the Miami game. Instead, he deferred to the medical staff and his player, and McCoy aggravated the hamstring after playing ineffectively for more than a half.

I suspect that Ryan was desperate to win the Miami game and avoid dropping to 1-3 in the AFC with the Patriots game up next. Beating the Dolphins would have eased a lot of the pressure against New England. So he took a reckless gamble on McCoy and lost.

So the pressure is on Ryan to make a difference Sunday. The Bills hired him largely for his ability to devise defensive schemes that made life difficult for Brady. Ryan's defense made Brady look silly in the second meeting a year ago in Foxborough.

This year's defense has been a revelation for much of the year, getting more consistent pressure on quarterbacks than a year ago. Ryan will have Marcell Dareus back. Rookie Shaq Lawson will likely get more snaps. Rex needs to live up to his reputation as a defensive mastermind. His D has to be the best unit on the field.

Ryan is the only AFC East coach ever to beat Brady and the Pats in a playoff game. His Jets split with the Pats in that 2010 regular season, so he has beaten them twice in a season before.

"We also got beat 45-3 by them in the same season," Ryan said. "I remember that one."

Rex knows his history. He was uncommonly low-key for Pats week. He didn't make any outrageous statements.  He didn't tweak Bill Belichick or jump on any conference calls. He's well aware that the Pats are the class of the NFL, and a team that will be even more motivated after the Bills shut them out in Foxborough four weeks ago.

Brady was in exile for underinflating footballs that day. He has been predictably sensational in the first three games of his personal revenge tour. Brady and the Pats have always been dangerous when they have a score to settle. They'll be doubly juiced to take care of business at New Era on Sunday.

Beating the mighty Pats in this spot, with a compromised roster, would be as inspiring a triumph as the Bills have had since the Jim Kelly era. That's what makes it so very difficult to imagine.

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