FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In a sense, the game began an hour early, around noon, when two Patriots rookies, wideout Malcolm Mitchell and quarterback Jacoby Brissett, jogged brazenly through the Bills' defensive back warmups. Twice.
"The first time, we said, 'Hey, man, run on the sideline!'" said Nickell Robey-Coleman. "They were inside the green and running through our drills. We told them to do it on the white. They didn't listen. They did it again."
That's when backup safety Robert Blanton shoved Mitchell for a perceived show of disrespect. Other players joined in the scuffle. Coaches got involved. Safety Aaron Williams pushed New England offensive line coach Brendan Daly. Cooler heads prevailed and order was restored.
Maybe it was a case of two newbies not understanding the NFL's pre-game protocol. But the Bills thought it was an orchestrated attempt to get into their heads, stir them into an emotional froth and knock them off their game.
Pats owner Robert Kraft chimed in during a pre-game radio show with this jab at Bills coach Rex Ryan: "I think that if you are less than disciplined in your personal approach, your team takes on the attitude of the coach."
Aaron Williams, no stranger to hair-trigger outbursts, was as fired-up as anyone. But he suspected the Pats were attempting to play on the Bills' reputation for flying off the handle in games.
"So we left it right there," Williams said. "I grabbed everybody together after it happened and said, 'Hey, we are not going to allow these guys to get in our heads.' That might be part of their game plan, but we can't let it affect us."
It did not. Come game time, the Bills were the team that played with purpose and cool, measured resolve. They came to Gillette with a singular goal: To prove they were better than their 0-2 start and, despite the loss of star wideout Sammy Watkins, not hiding behind excuses or looking for sympathy.
They didn't need any excuses Sunday. Playing an inspired game on both sides of the ball, they hammered the previously unbeaten Patriots, 16-0, handing Bill Belichick the first home shutout of his New England career and jumping back into the AFC East race, a game behind the Pats.
"It means a lot," said Robey-Coleman. "This was a big day for us. We worked our tails off, because it was a must-win, and we came through. Now we're 2-2 and we got to keep this going. Everybody played well -- special teams, defense and offense. The coaches did a great job, too. It was a great organizational win."
Yes, it was a big day for the embattled: For Ryan, he of the fragile job security; for general manager Doug Whaley, whose defensive additions again came up large; for Anthony Lynn, who was sharp in his first road game as offensive coordinator, and for quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who played his best road game in a year and won a game in which he threw 30 passes for the first time.
I considered this the most important game of Ryan's head coaching career. He was up against his bitter rival, Belichick, with his team on the brink of going 0-3 in the conference and his long-term job prospects seeming very dire.
Ryan's team responded with its second straight upset of a Super Bowl contender, and its most complete game of his turbulent Buffalo tenure. This was the Ryan coaching blueprint in its fullest expression: Play stifling defense, run the ball well and be crisp, opportunistic and mistake-free in the passing game.
Granted, this was not Belichick's finest hour. His team was sloppy and stupid from the opening kickoff, which another precocious rookie, Cyrus Jones, ran out of the end zone to the 9-yard line. The Pats were the more penalized team (nine for 74 yards) and were 1-for-12 on third downs.
What was it Kraft said about undisciplined teams taking on the character of the head coach?
"I think so, too," Ryan said, "because they probably weren't as disciplined as they should be."
Touche. Ryan's teams often reflect his bold, bombastic qualities. But he's a good defensive coach, and proved it again here. Keep in mind, in his previous four trips to Gillette (three with the Jets), Ryan's teams had lost by seven, three, one and three points, the latter in overtime.
The defense dominated the start of the game for the second week in a row. Against Arizona, they forced five straight three-and-outs to start the game. In the first half, they held the Pats to two first downs, 98 net yards and no more than four offensive plays on any of their five possessions.
Of course, it came against Brissett, a third-string quarterback. Ryan pointed out several times that the Pats "had a player out," a reference to Brady. It was hard to tell if Rex was being sincere or whining subliminally about his hard luck with injuries in Buffalo. But his point was valid.
"We're going to hear the excuses," said Aaron Williams. "He was a third-sring quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo was out, Tom (Brady) didn't play. It's a game, man. They get paid just like we do. They got to prepare just like we do."
Regardless of the Pats' historic dominance at Gillette, it would have been a colossal embarrassment for the Bills to lose to a third-string QB. The impact would have been more profound than a victory. It was a huge win, but only one win, and Ryan reminded his squad of the fact.
"One win," said defensive tackle Kyle Williams. "We prepared to win. All wins are good, no doubt about it. Three teams tried against a backup and third-stringer and weren't able to do it. We did it today. But we didn't get too low when we were 0-2, and we're not going to get too high at 2-2."
That's advisable. The Bills are tough to figure. These two wins got them on their feet and "changed the conversation". To think, people were talking about tanking just 10 days ago. But I could see them losing to the Rams and Miami and being 3-4 when the Pats come to town at the end of the month.
Ah yes, the Pats. It will be a different team that arrives in Buffalo in four weeks, with Brady back under center and Rob Gronkowski presumably healthy. The Bills are looking forward to it. Robey-Coleman and Aaron Williams said they would have liked to take their chances with Brady on Sunday.
"Always, always!" said Robey-Coleman. "It's bittersweet, like we got them but we're going to wait 'til the finale and see what we can do against 12."
"Absolutely," Aaron Williams said. "It doesn't matter. We're going to be ready, regardless, when they come back to Buffalo. But that's so far ahead. We want to enjoy this win and get ready for Los Angeles."
My advice to the Rams: Don't run through the Bills' defensive back drills. Instead of getting in their heads, you might be playing into their hands.