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. Boston fans celebrated him before he retired, or maybe because he retired.
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, 29 games in all. Still, there comes a point in which fans put down their weapons and tip their caps to the man.
Granted, it sounds like blasphemy in Buffalo.
Leodis McKelvin fumbled away a crucial kickoff in 2009 against the Patriots, 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.
Even the most loyal Bills fans, despite their tough exterior and sharp tongues, quietly wish they had Brady on their team. He’s the best quarterback in NFL history, one who has destroyed the Bills throughout his career. It’s part of the reason Buffalo fans love to loathe him. They view him and Bill Belichick as cheaters, as if the Patriots somehow swindled their way to four Super Bowl titles.
Deep down, intelligent football fans know better.
You wonder how much time Brady has left in his career. He celebrated his 39th birthday in August and suggested he wants to play several more years. Another eight or 10 games must be terrifying for the Bills after they watched him carve up their defense once again in a 41-25 victory Sunday at New Era Field.
Brady was gracious after the game, as usual, making sure he diverted attention to his teammates while injecting his megawatt smile into his aw-shucks personality. All that camera time helped him become a polished speaker. He laughed after the game Sunday when talking about Buffalo fans.
“They can crank it up pretty good here,” Brady said.
Brady quickly pivoted toward the Patriots’ defense holding the Bills to a field goal on the opening drive, how New England scored a touchdown on its first possession and the benefits of playing with the lead. He praised Buffalo fans for their passion and complimented the Bills for having a good team.
He’s a real charmer, that Brady, but he wasn’t kidding anybody. Bills fans know a cold-blooded assassin rages within. The guy thoroughly enjoyed another feast Sunday while throwing for 315 yards and four touchdowns and sending fans who berated him to the exits in silence.
Rob Gronkowski had five catches for 109 yards and his 69th career touchdown, breaking Stanley Morgan’s record for most in Pats history when Brady found him on a post for a 53-yard score. Gronk, born and raised in Amherst, has 11 TDs in 11 games against his hometown team.
“I feel it for sure,” Gronkowski said. “When you get 50 middle fingers from the people in the first three rows, I definitely feel that. It’s awesome. I love being part of this organization. I love being part of the Brady era. I couldn’t ask to be in a better situation when I was drafted here seven years ago.”
If they welcome Gronk with half a peace sign, they’re not exactly blowing kisses to Brady. He has a 26-3 career record against the Bills. He has thrown for more yards (7,316) and more touchdowns (66) against them than any other team. He hasn’t been anywhere near as effective against the Jets and Dolphins, the other division rivals.
Here’s an interesting nugget: Brady has a 13-2 road record against Buffalo, giving him one more win in Orchard Park than Ryan Fitzpatrick had during his four-year career with the Bills. Only seven quarterbacks in franchise history won more than 13 games total. The last with more than 13 wins in Orchard Park was Drew Bledsoe, the man Brady replaced in New England. He had 14.
If that’s not nauseating enough for Bills fans, Brady also has won 11 of his past 12 games in Buffalo. The Pats scored 30 points or more nine times over that stretch and averaged 38.6 points in five games since Brady’s last loss in Buffalo. It came in a 34-31 defeat in 2011, the only game Fitz won that was worth remembering.
Brady had 209 yards passing and three TDs in the first half Sunday and was pulled with about four minutes remaining. It marked the fourth time in five road games against Buffalo that he had more than 300 yards passing in a game. The Bills would need to reach back to 2012 for their past four 300-yard passing days anywhere.
The Bills, at 4-4, are still the Bills.
The Patriots, 7-1, are still the Patriots.
And Brady is still Brady.
Imagine how the past 16 years would have gone if Brady and Belichick were in Buffalo rather than the litany of bumbling quarterbacks and coaches. Brady’s absence tempered the Bills’ excitement after they became the first team to shut out the Patriots in Gillette Stadium. The win came with an asterisk.
You hear people talk about “revenge” as a source of motivation over another team, but New England doesn’t operate in that fashion. The Patriot Way is winning with intelligence and execution over any emotional lift gained from a loss.
Brady’s competitive spirit must have been heightened after he was suspended for four games for using deflated footballs. Buffalo knew four weeks ago that New England would respond Sunday. They knew Brady was coming back. In fact, he ended up staying longer than most fans.
“The best part is at the end. That’s the best part,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of experiences where there’s 70,000 people against you, then there’s 5,000 Patriot fans on the road that are cheering for you. It’s a great motivation for us. It’s a tough place to play against a team that challenges you in so many ways. To be so far ahead, to be able to run out the clock in the end, that’s a great feeling.”