Nov. 6, 2011 may not immediately register as a day of significance to Buffalo Bills fans.
Their favorite team lost that day, which is not exactly an uncommon occurrence during 16 years of ineptitude.
But to fully understand the ramifications of that 27-11 beatdown at the hands of the New York Jets, it’s best to recall what was at stake.
The Bills came into that game off of a 23-0 shutout over Washington in Toronto – remember when those games were a thing? – and had a 5-2 record.
Here’s how Buffalo News Senior Sports Columnist Jerry Sullivan set the scene the morning of the game: “It’s been a long time since we’ve had a Sunday quite like this one. People are calling today’s game against the Jets the biggest since the finale of the 2004 season. I think it’s bigger. The Bills had a shot at the playoffs, but the nation’s eyes were elsewhere that day.
“The football world is watching closely, eager to find out if the Bills are for real.”
In fact, the team itself was eager to find out the same thing.
“The previous year we had lost to the Jets twice, and I don’t think it was even close. We kind of felt like the younger brother in the relationship,” former Bills wide receiver David Nelson said. “We had already beaten New England that year, but we weren’t necessarily taken seriously, even with a 5-2 record.
“It really felt like that win against Washington was our statement game. It felt like it was going to propel us, and a way to show that would be against our division rivals.”
The Jets came in with a 4-3 record, but off back-to-back appearances in the AFC Championship Game they were a good measuring stick. The Bills were looking to start 6-2 for the first time since the final year of their Super Bowl run and validate themselves as playoff contenders.
“Obviously at that time, with Rex Ryan as head coach, we knew they were very unconventional on defense,” Nelson said. “In a lot of ways they were going to present a challenge to us. We really thought it was that ‘prove it’ game. We felt like that Washington game we won, we proved it to ourselves. We felt like the New York game was one we could really prove to the media and the fans.”
They never came close. Ryan’s defense suffocated the Bills’ offense, holding Buffalo to just a Rian Lindell field goal for the first 57 minutes.
“They got after us pretty good and we were riding high at the time,” said center Eric Wood, the only member of the Bills still left from the 2011 offense. “We had been putting up a ton of points, and they did some different things defensively that slowed us down.”
Wood is right – led by coach Chan Gailey and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Bills were averaging 30 points going into that contest – third in the NFL.
“At the time we liked to spread people out a lot, and they didn’t allow us to run the ball out of our spread formations by packing the box a little tighter than we would have liked,” Wood said.
The Bills managed just 73 yards of total offense in the first half, with Fitzpatrick going 4 of 12 for 24 yards with two interceptions. The Jets led 13-0 and 27-3 before Nelson caught a garbage-time touchdown.
“We got punched in the mouth,” Nelson said. “They were more physical. They sent all kinds of crazy coverages, different blitzes. They did what they wanted and it affected us. It took away the swagger that we had.
“Instead of looking at our entire body of work for the season, we were looking at that game saying, ‘ Well, what if another team tries to do that? Did that team just figure us out?’ We went into the next week preparing as if they were going to look at New York’s film and try to replicate what they did, instead of just approaching it like we had the entire season.”
That game was Fitzpatrick’s first in Ralph Wilson Stadium after signing a contract extension potentially worth $60 million. Leading up to it, he was listed on the injury report for a bruised chest. In fact, he was actually dealing with broken ribs from a crushing hit delivered by London Fletcher in the game against Washington.
“He really battled through the next several games,” Wood said of Fitzpatrick. “He didn’t miss a game − didn’t miss a play, actually, but the injuries started mounting right at that point, which limited a lot of what we wanted to do.”
The following week, Wood tore his ACL against Dallas, and the week after that, running back Fred Jackson suffered a broken leg against Miami.
The loss to the Jets started a three-game stretch in which the Bills were outscored, 106-26, with Fitzpatrick throwing just two touchdowns and seven interceptions, failing to post a quarterback rating of better than 52 in any of the games. Just like that, a promising 5-2 start had imploded to 5-5, and the losses just kept coming. Seven in a row and eight of the final nine gave the Bills a massively disappointing 6-10 record. The offense that was third in the league in scoring before facing the Jets dropped to 14th.
“I don’t know if we were a complete enough team at the time,” Wood said. “We had a great run to start that year. That team had a ton of grit, but I don’t know that we had the overall talent to be dominant on both sides of the ball for an entire season. We would have had to keep that magic rolling, but it fell apart.”
So, yes, Ryan is the one who pulled back the curtain and exposed “FitzMagic.”
“They had an awesome defense, which Rex was a part of,” Wood said. “They had a lot of talent on that side of the ball. You could say he had his number. We didn’t perform well against those Jets teams.”
Prior to that game against the Jets, Fitzpatrick had a 13-15 record in 28 games as the Bills’ starter, throwing for 6,039 yards, 45 touchdowns and 30 interceptions.
Including the New York game, the Bills’ record over Fitzpatrick’s final 25 starts was 7-18. He went 504 of 845 during that time, throwing for 5,493 yards (6.5 yards per attempt), 34 touchdowns and 31 interceptions, with a passer rating of 76.9.
After the 2012 season, which started with a blowout loss to Ryan’s Jets, the Bills decided to move on from Fitzpatrick. Former General Manager Buddy Nix made no secret of the team’s desire to draft a quarterback, which it did when it reached for EJ Manuel in the first round in 2013.
One game equaled years of ramifications.
Plenty has changed since that 2011 season. Ralph Wilson Stadium is now New Era Field. The Bills’ roster contains just five players who suited up against the Jets that November day. Gailey, Fitzpatrick and Ryan have all switched sidelines.
With the tables now turned, Bills fans have to hope Fitzpatrick has yet to solve the Ryan riddle. Thursday night’s game between the AFC East rivals is as close to “must win” as it gets in Week Two. Both teams enter 0-1. The odds of an 0-2 team making the playoffs plummets to about 10 percent.
The Bills might not say so, but there has to be some level of comfort in game-planning for a quarterback they know inside and out.
“There’s a certain level of confidence you have to have, regardless of who you’re playing,” defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman said. “He’s done some good things against us. He’s a damn good quarterback. I understand why they wanted him back. He had a great year last year. The receivers like him, offensive line likes him, and rightfully so.
“But we’re not just playing against him. We’re playing against their offense. They have a talented group. We’ll be prepared for them on Thursday night.”
During a conference call with the Western New York media this week, Fitzpatrick admitted his track record against Ryan isn’t good, but took a shot at the receivers he had in Buffalo when he said he’s not “competing with Hall of Famers.”
He did have Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker catching passes last season, however, when he lost both games to the Bills, the last of which cost the Jets a playoff spot.
“He knows how to disperse the ball to the different players he has around him,” Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams said, “and he’s got some good players around him. We’re going to have to do a good job of showing some things, then maybe playing them, maybe not playing them. Try to get around him and rattle him the best we can. When we have opportunities and he has to hold the ball, we have to try and get home.”
Ryan did his best to distance himself as best he could from any dominance he has over Fitzpatrick. He’s certainly not going to share any of the secrets to his success, but the results have been easy to see.
“I think history tells you that,” Williams said when asked if Ryan had Fitzpatrick’s number, before quickly adding, “but each year’s a new year. One year’s not the same as the next. Our game on Thursday, anything in the past won’t have any effect on how we have to prepare now and get ready.”
That 2011 loss was so memorably bad that it stuck with the team. The Bills of today have to show that they’re over a similar horrific performance.
The Week One loss to Baltimore was about as ugly as it can get offensively, with 160 total yards, the team’s lowest total since 2006.
Just four days have passed since then, precious little time to fix what was broken.
“Tape doesn’t lie,” Ryan said. “We really struggled. We clearly have to get better in a hurry.”