By Tara Sullivan, Boston Globe Staff
ORCHARD PARK – The stretch began with a field goal before halftime, extended through a touchdown drive to open the third quarter, and barreled roughshod across a defensive sequence that left the Bills clinging to the last shred of hope they could somehow keep hanging with the division bullies from New England. There they were, buried deep at the wrong end a 20-yard sack, forced to punt out of a 4th-and-25 third-quarter hole, mired in the numbing reality of the beginning of their own end, the predictable waiting game for the final whistle on another division win for New England moving into overdrive.
By the time that whistle came, the Patriots had added a second third-quarter touchdown run from Rex Burkhead, a 10-point double-score swing that isn’t simply a signature strategy for head coach Bill Belichick, but a momentum-generating force of football nature. By the time that whistle came, Nathan Peterman had subbed at QB for injured Bill Tyrod Taylor, Brian Hoyer had come in to relieve a victorious Tom Brady, and the Patriots were dusting off their 10th win of the season, a 23-3 decision. And now that it’s here, the Patriots find themselves right where they always seem to be at this point in the AFC East standings, at the top of the mountain looking down, in control and in contention.
Kudos to New England.
But shame on the rest of the AFC East.
Shame on you Bills, and Dolphins, and Jets, for making this so easy for the Patriots for so many years now, for turning in season after season of futility and inability to match wits, never mind quarterbacks, with the best-run franchise in the NFL, for living so consistently in the shadow of a Belichick-Brady combination that yes, will go down as the greatest combination of coach and athlete our sports landscape has ever known, but has been able to flourish because everyone else just wilts.
There was Devin McCourty trying to sell you exactly the right Kool-Aid Sunday, talking about an inevitable ninth straight division title as if it weren’t clinchable next Monday night in Miami, acknowledging the difficulty of playing in Buffalo as if his quarterback hadn’t just improved to 27-3 lifetime against the Bills, passing Brett Favre’s NFL record for most career wins by a quarterback against a single opponent.
“Obviously we’ve won a lot, but even this game, it wasn’t just a game where you come out and it’s an easy, dominant game, and you’re hanging out in the third quarter, you know? It was a good game,” the veteran safety insisted afterwards. “I don’t think we even look at it like that, we just know how prepared we have to be to play within this division.”
Give McCourty credit for preaching the company line, but these numbers don’t lie. Since 2001, when Brady took over as the full-time starter, the Patriots have won eight straight division titles, 13 of the last 14, and 14 of the last 16. Only the 2002 Jets and the 2008 Dolphins (when Brady tore his ACL in the first game of the season) cracked the code, but that neither one could either turn it into a championship run or find a way to build on the breakthrough is as much a testament to their failure as credit to the Patriots success.
Of course the Brady advantage seems insurmountable, and with five rings and counting, he’s the best there is. But really, across 16 seasons, not one of those franchises could find a franchise QB? Not one of them could build a decent challenge to a division title that, for example, the NFC East has chopped up like a holiday pie? They haven’t had a repeat winner since the Eagles won four straight in 2001-04, and as recently as 2011-14, each of the four teams take consecutive turns as champions. Names like Eli Manning and Tony Romo, like Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott, like Kirk Cousins and Donovan McNabb have allowed the pie to be split more evenly.
Around these parts?
Start with the Bills, who have started 16 quarterbacks (including, coincidentally, the man Brady supplanted Drew Bledsoe), since 2000, when Brady was drafted. They’ve also had 10 head coaches in that same span (since Belichick took over), have appeared in zero playoff games while New England played 34 (winning 25). But don’t stop there. With the 2017 additions of Peterman, the Jets’ Josh McCown and the Dolphins' Jay Cutler and Matt Moore, the ranks of AFC East starters against Brady and Co. reached an astounding 46 different quarterbacks, from the legendary (Favre) to the journeyman (Ryan Fitzpatrick) and everything in between.
On it goes, with New England reaching double-digit wins for the 15th consecutive season (second all-time to San Francisco), on the verge of a ninth straight postseason appearance that would also tie an NFL record shared by Dallas and Indianapolis.
Against this weak division, the Patriots make it look easy. But against this New England bully, those guys make it too easy.
Belichick knows the value of his stranglehold on the division, how much it means in the vital battle for home-field advantage. Just don't ask him to admit it.
“The historical stuff really doesn’t matter right now, it’s about this season, it’s about this game, and now it’s about getting ready to go down and play Miami on Monday night,” he said.
On the road, in Foxborough, whatever. With stretches like the one from the three-minute mark of the first half to a fourth-and-25 punt in the third quarter, they make it look easy. And the other guys don’t help.