FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — For seventeen unremitting years, the New England Patriots have thumped the Buffalo Bills' skulls.
Since 2001, no AFC East team has finished with a better record. Teams only occasionally have won the division on tiebreakers, but that's as good as life has been within the division since Tom Brady became Bill Belichick's starting quarterback.
Here they go into the playoffs yet again. They've already clinched the AFC East and are on the verge of securing homefield advantage. Brady, at 40 years old, is the clear favorite to be voted league MVP.
The thought of Brady remaining dominant for a few more years is enough for fans of any other team to want to carve out their eyeballs with a rusty spoon rather than suffer watching the Patriots anymore.
Imagine this, though: Sunday being the last time the Bills have to face Brady and Belichick together ever again.
The idea doesn't feel far-fetched these days in New England, where the hottest topic is a rift between men each considered the best of all-time at what he does.
If the franchise's foundation isn't quaking, then we at least can feel tremors.
Belichick and Brady have been to seven Super Bowls together and have won five. At the moment, they have a rift to patch up. But they might be at stages of their careers where Patriots owner Robert Kraft must choose one over the other unless one decides the situation isn't worth the trouble and walks away.
Belichick had been tolerant for years of Alex Guerrero, Brady's shaman "body coach," a former infomercial huckster who has been busted twice by the FTC for calling himself a doctor even though the most impressive certification anyone can dredge up is a degree in Chinese medicine from a Los Angeles college that no longer exists and for hawking products that claimed to cure cancer, AIDS, diabetes and concussions.
Guerrero has had an office in Gillette Stadium near the Patriots' locker room, reportedly had his run of the facilities and began to work on a growing percentage of the roster, including star players such as Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski.
Guerrero and Brady have been super-tight since Brady came back from the knee injury that kept the 13-time Pro Bowler out for the 2008 season. They went into business, opening the TB12 Sports Therapy Center at Patriot Place, the outdoor mall attached to Gillette Stadium and owned by Kraft. Guerrero is godfather to Brady's son, Ben.
Now, letting you do that voodoo that you do so well on Brady is one thing. As Crash Davis once told minor-league baseball romanta-mystic Annie Savoy in "Bull Durham," if you believe you're playing well "because you wear women's underwear, then you are!"
But converting the Patriots roster into a team of placebo-popping acolytes is another thing entirely.
The Patriots' medical and training staffs reportedly don't view Guerrero favorably. Belichick has been agitated by the phenomenon and reportedly has cut back Guerrero's access to players not named Tom Brady. Belichick recently banned Guerrero from the team plane and the sidelines.
And you thought a scandal over deflated footballs was silly.
Sports empires have fallen for less.
The Chicago Bulls probably would've won more NBA titles if Michael Jordan hadn't decided to play baseball. The Dallas Cowboys probably would've won more Super Bowls if Jerry Jones' ego wasn't too large to share the stage with Jimmy Johnson. The Edmonton Oilers probably would've won more Stanley Cups if Wayne Gretzky hadn't gotten bigger than the game.
All dynasties must end, theoretically, a concept that apparently has Belichick and an increasingly number of Patriots fans wondering what might have been with Jimmy Garoppolo.
Jimmy G remorse is spreading across New England.
The Patriots were forced to choose between Brady and Garoppolo before the end of this season. Brady was showing no signs of slowing down. Garoppolo was playing the final year of his rookie contract.
Belichick reportedly didn't want to trade Garoppolo, but in October the Patriots sent their polished understudy to the San Francisco 49ers for a second-round draft choice.
Brady over the past four weeks has completed 62.5 percent of his passes for an average of 254 yards with six touchdowns and five interceptions. The Patriots went 3-1 because they're a good team.
Garoppolo became the lowly 49ers' starter three weeks ago. They've gone 3-0. He has completed 68.1 percent of his throws for an average of 336 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Patriots fans are wary that Brady's and Garoppolo's career arrows are headed in opposite directions.
For the first time since — when, Hugh Millen in 1992? — there's a sense of future-quarterback envy around these sports-pampered parts.
We've known about Guerrero for a few years, but it was a quaint story about a new-age trainer keeping the NFL's greatest quarterback playing so well at an age other passers already have fallen apart.
But as Brady does fade, and he will fade, and as long as Garoppolo looks the part elsewhere, Guerrero's Rasputin presence at Gillette Stadium will cast a darker shadow.
The situation already is significant around New England. Once the postseason arrives, the sensational weirdness will turn into a national story. Brady will be viewed differently, although folks here already seem to have Guerrero pegged.
As Guerrero told New York Times Magazine in January 2015, "Everyone thinks I'm a kook and a charlatan."
Belichick reportedly is among that group, while Brady considers that charlatan a dear member of his family.
The Patriots have been a fairy tale since Belichick and Brady joined forces in 2001.
Some spells, however, are more powerful than others.
Story topics: Alex Guerrero/ bill belichick/ Danny Amendola/ Jerry Jones/ Jimmy Garoppolo/ Jimmy Johnson/ Julian Edelman/ Michael Jordan/ Rob Gronkowski/ Robert Kraft/ tom brady/ Wayne Gretzky/ Wes Welker