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Jerry Sullivan: Welcome to your nightmare, the Pats

Last March, during a coaches' breakfast at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix, someone asked newly anointed Bills head coach Sean McDermott for his reaction to the recent upgrades the Patriots had made to their roster.

"That's why I wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning," McDermott said.

If McDermott felt that way last winter, he might not be sleeping at all this week. Chances are, he's been sitting through the night in his office at One Bills Drive, poring over New England game film with his eyes pried open by toothpicks.

There's never a good time to run into the Patriots, as a legion of Bills coaches could attest. But since Tom Brady took over as the starting quarterback in 2001, they've been consistently better in the second halves of seasons, and have owned the Bills during that time.

The Pats haven't lost a meaningful game to the Bills in the second half in the Brady era. The one loss came in the 2014 finale, when the Patriots had wrapped up home field in the playoffs and rested several starters. Brady played a half. The win certainly wasn't heroic enough to stop Doug Marrone from walking off the job as Bills coach three days later.

No coach has been immune from the torment and embarrassment against the Pats in the drought:

Gregg Williams punted on fourth-and-2 from the Pats' 32 in the second half of a blowout loss in the first "Bledsoe Bowl"; Mike Mularkey had Drew Bledsoe run a bootleg on fourth-and-3 that turned into a sack-fumble TD late in a loss; Dick Jauron couldn't get a challenge flag out of his pocket in time.

Chan Gailey watched in horror as the Pats scored 35 points in a span of 12:41 of the second half in a 52-28 loss; Marrone lost his NFL head coaching debut on a field goal with five seconds left; Brady torched Rex Ryan's defense for 466 yards passing, the most ever for an opposing quarterback in Buffalo.

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This Sunday at New Era Field, McDermott gets his first shot at the defending Super Bowl champion Pats and their hooded mastermind, Bill Belichick. The Bills will face a surging New England team that has won seven straight to assume its customary stranglehold on the AFC East.

McDermott said in March that the Bills were trying to catch up to the Pats. No kidding. They haven't finished better than three games behind the Pats in the AFC East since 2002, a remarkable run of futility. It's like an MLB team not getting closer than 30 games from the top for 15 years in a row.

So a win on Sunday could be a game-changer. Brady is at the top of his game at age 40, ranking first in the NFL in QB rating (111.7) and passing yards (3,374). The Pats are first in yards and first downs. The Bills' D is 25th in yards, 30th in first downs and 31st in sacks per play.

It's not an encouraging scenario. The Bills' defense rose up last week in Kansas City, but it was against an offense in free fall, one that had scored nine points in an overtime loss to the Giants the week before. Until they prove otherwise, they're still the defense that allowed a franchise record 135 points in its previous three games. The bitter taste is still there.

"I don't think it'll be out of our mouths for the rest of the season," said cornerback E.J. Gaines. "It'll be something we focus on and making sure that doesn't happen again. We definitely have to be honest with ourselves and know that's something we can't have."

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Brady isn't the guy you want standing in the way when you're trying to restore your defensive mojo. He has completed 68.4 percent of his passes, with 26 TDs and three interceptions. But if the Bills believe that three-game meltdown was a momentary blip, they need to rise up.

"That three-game stretch was uncharacteristic of us," said cornerback Tre'Davious White. "We just can't make this game bigger than what it is. It's another game. It's a division game, but it's still football. No matter who's out there, you still have to go out and play."

Sorry, but it's not just another game, the weekly installment in the process. When McDermott took over, he knew Belichick was the standard, the smiling, sinister sage that the Bills had been chasing for a generation.

McDermott has been pilloried nationally for yanking Tyrod Taylor as his starting quarterback for Nathan Peterman two games ago. If he gets the better of Belichick in their first meeting, it will burnish his reputation as a defensive guru and rising head coach in the league.

On the other hand, if the Bills win a second straight game, it will make the decision to play Peterman in San Diego even more foolhardy in retrospect, especially if Taylor plays well.

Tyrod Taylor will start vs. Pats, but McDermott isn't making any promises beyond that

I'm sure Bills fans are willing to deal with that prospect, although 17 years of persistent and often soul-crushing failure against the Pats have taught them to expect the worst.

"Listen, I have a tremendous amount of respect for what they do and what they've done," McDermott said. "We respect every opponent. Them being the defending world champs, what they've been able to accomplish is just incredible."

The Bills know that better than anyone. They've beaten Brady three times in his career, never when he played in a meaningful game after September.  In their last five trips to Buffalo, the Patriots have averaged 38.6 points a game and won all five by an average of 13.

It's no wonder if McDermott bolts awake in the middle of the night. The Pats are a coach's worst nightmare, an opponent that can keep you up all week long, searching for answers, and still be lucky to hold under 40.

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