Two years ago, when Derek Jeter played his last game at Fenway Park, he was treated to a standing ovation from Red Sox fans who jeered him as the opponent, despised him as a Yankee and respected him as a player. Many were simply relieved that Jeter was finally retiring.
It made me wonder Sunday whether Bills fans would someday pay similar homage to Tom Brady after his last game in Orchard Park. He has made their lives miserable for 16 years and counting, 17 NFL seasons in all. Still, there comes a point in which you put down your guns and tip your cap to the man.
Granted, it sounds like blasphemy in Bills Nation. Leodis McKelvin fumbled away a crucial kickoff in 2009, and vandals spray-painted his lawn. I don’t need anyone egging my house for praising Brady. I’m certainly not giving neighborhood punks – I know who you are, and I know where you live – any bright ideas for Halloween.
For me, it’s an appreciation of greatness.
Even the most loyal Bills fans, underneath their tough skin and sharp tongues, wish they had Brady on their team. He’s the best quarterback in NFL history, which is part of the reason Buffalo fans love to loathe him. They view him and Bill Belichick as cheaters, suggesting they tricked their way to success.
Deep down, however, they know better.
You wonder how many passes Brady, 39, has left in his career. He suggested he wants to play several more years. Another eight or 10 games against him must be horrifying for the Bills after they watched him carve up their defense once again Sunday in a 41-25 victory at New Era Field.
He completed 22 of 33 passes for 315 yards and four touchdowns before he was pulled with about four minutes remaining. He had 209 yards passing and three TDs in the first half. Raise your hand if you switched to the Sabres-Jets game after Brady found Julian Edelmen with a 12-yard TD early in the third quarter.
The Bills, at 4-4, are still the Bills.
The Patriots, at 7-1, are still the Patriots.
And Tom Brady is still Tom Brady.
Imagine how different the past 16 years would have gone if Brady and Belichick were in Buffalo rather than the litany of bumbling quarterbacks and coaches. It was one reason the Bills tempered their excitement earlier this month after becoming the first team to shut out the Patriots in Gillette Stadium.
Like it or not, the win came with an asterisk.
You hear people talk about “revenge” because it’s a convenient means of explaining how one team could gain a motivational edge over another. New England doesn’t operate in that fashion. The Patriot Way is winning with intelligence and execution and learning from past mistakes over any emotional benefit gained from a loss.
Brady would argue that he’s motivated for every game, no argument here, but the competitive spirit in him must have been heightened after he was suspended for four games for using deflated footballs. It’s human nature for him, or any athlete, to take out their frustration on their opponents.
On Sunday, it was a combination.
The Bills had the fortunate of beating the Patriots, who were without Brady, in the first meeting and the misfortune of playing against him in the rematch. The Patriots also had Rob Gronkowski at full health after he hobbled through Buffalo’s win a month ago with a sore hamstring.
Brady systematically took apart the Bills on Sunday the way he has throughout his career against Buffalo. He had three touchdown passes in the first half, including 53-yard strikes to Gronkowski and Chris Hogan. He improved his career record to 26-3 against the Bills. It includes a meaningless loss that he treated like a playoff tuneup.
Sunday’s game mattered.
The first meeting was an unfair fight favoring the Bills, but it was lopsided the other way Sunday. New England had Brady back in the lineup. Rob Gronkowski was fully healthy after the tight end battled hamstring problems. Rob Ninkovich returned after serving a four-game suspension.
Buffalo had to play a near-perfect game against its division rivals and capitalize on its opportunities. The Bills gave up two long touchdown passes and a 73-yard kickoff return to open the second half. Dan Carpenter missed a 49-yard field late in the second quarter and watched Stephen Gostkowski convert from 51 before halftime.
The Bills looked more like a team that lost its first two games rather than the one that string together four straight victories. They needed to convert on third down and score touchdown in the red zone knowing the Patriots would be doing the same. The first possession for each team was an indication how the game would unfold.
Brady was 4 for 4 on third down on the Pats’ first drive, including his 9-yard TD pass to Danny Amendola. It came after the Bills marched down the field, and made it look easy, before they were forced to settle for a short field goal. Buffalo knew four weeks ago that New England would respond Sunday.
They knew Brady was coming back.