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Jerry Sullivan: Pats or Marrone - a tough call

Jerry Sullivan

Bills fans have a painful dilemma on Sunday afternoon. Which team do they root for in the AFC championship game, or should I say, whom do they root against?

On the one hand, you have the Patriots, who have been the bane of their existence for the last 18 NFL seasons. How could Buffalo fans possibly root for Bill Belichick, the sinister football genius? Or pretty boy Tom Brady, who has shredded a generation of Bills defenses and even insulted our hotels awhile back?

Never mind SpyGate or DeflateGate or the periodic suspicion that the Patriots have interfered with the opposition's radio signals during games. Or the fact that they seem to get the benefit of every dubious official's call, or that they poach many of the Bills' players, or that they're so damn lucky besides.

How do you root for that? It would be like pulling for the Dolphins to win Super Bowls in the Seventies, or for plastic to replace steel, or pulling for the Flyers to win the Stanley Cup.

On the other hand, can any self-respecting Bills fan actually get behind Doug Marrone? The guy led the Bills to a 9-7 record three years ago and walked out the door, taking a nifty $4 million bonus with him. A lot of fans, and several of the players, including Eric Wood, still resent him for quitting on them.

Marrone got paid for doing nothing. Of course, you could say the same about Marcell Dareus, who earned a tidy $1 million a game, sometimes for actually playing, after getting a $100 million contract soon after Smug Marrone walked out the door.

Come on, imagine what it would be like to watch Marrone stand next to Roger Goodell with the Lombardi Trophy after the Jaguars won the big one two weeks from Sunday in Minnesota. A .500 Syracuse coach gets handed an NFL job, bolts two years later, then wins the Super Bowl three years after that?

I'm trying to picture Dareus sitting at one of those raised platforms after the Super Bowl, talking about how the Bills disrespected him and treated him like a nobody, and how Sean McDermott had the gall to limit his snaps. Hey, the guy was a Pro Bowler!

The Jaguars winning the Super Bowl would be like Carolina winning the Stanley Cup in 2006, the year the Sabres had a better team and got all those injuries. Buffalo fans still haven't forgiven the Hurricanes, a Johnny-come lately franchise in an indifferent hockey town, for winning the Cup when their Sabres still haven't.

Really, how does one choose? Pats or Jags? Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un? Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose? A searing migraine or persistent gout?

Well, I did an informal poll and found that most Buffalo fans would sooner jab a scissors into their eye than root for New England. Sure, they resent Marrone, but compared with Brady and Belichick, he's a minor character in the Bills' epic chronicle of woe and dysfunction, a mere stooge in the master plot.

You have to respect Buffalo fans for not confusing the enemy. If you're under 18, Brady and Belichick have been torturing you for your entire life. If you're a parent, you've anguished along with them, wondering just how long it would take for the evil Pats empire to suffer its inevitable demise.

Breaking the playoff drought didn't change anything. The Patriots will play in their 12th AFC title game in 17 years on Sunday. Belichick and Brady are looking to reach their eighth Super Bowl. No one rushes to meet the team plane when they make the playoffs. They wait for the big parade in February.

But as Bills fans have discovered over the past 18 years, rooting against the Pats can be a futile exercise. Just when you think they're vulnerable, when they show signs of conflict and doubt, they rise up again.

Sure, Brady cut his thumb this week, got four stitches and missed some practice. There always seems to be something wrong with him come playoff time. A stitched hand is no trifling thing, but he reportedly looked fine in practice Friday. And we're talking about the best ever to play.

Today's AFC title game is a fascinating matchup between the formidable New England offense and a young, gifted Jaguars defense that was second in total defense, sacks and points allowed, and first against the pass. Marrone's D allowed just 4.8 yards per pass attempt, easily the best figure in the league.

It'll be tough for Brady, even if the hand is OK. Over the years, he has struggled in the playoffs against teams that unsettle him with a strong pass rush. The Broncos did it in the AFC title game two years ago. The Giants did it in two Super Bowls. Rex Ryan's Jets did it once, the Ravens twice.

But I don't think Brady needs to have a big game for the Pats to win. When a great offense meets a great defense, I ask which team is better on its lesser side of the ball. In this case, it's the Pats' defense, which is much better than people think and usually rises up in the postseason.

The Pats were 29th in total defense this year, but fifth in points allowed. They remind me of the Bills' defense in 1993, the last Super Bowl year, which was 27th overall and fifth in scoring defense. They bent but had a way of keeping teams from scoring touchdowns.

That's typical of Belichick and Matt Patricia's defenses, which have finished higher in scoring defense than yards allowed in 15 of the last 17 seasons. Four times in the last eight, they've been top 10 in points allowed and bottom 10 in yardage given up — and won 12 or more games every time.

They generally get better as the year goes on. The Pats were a disaster in the first six games, giving up an average of 446 yards of offense, 325 passing. In 11 games since,  they've allowed only 316 per game, 207 passing, which would have ranked sixth in both over a full season.

The betting public has a lot of faith in the Jags, who are given a good chance to pull the upset. Maybe so, but anyone who thinks Jacksonville will win should watch a replay of the first half of the Jags' wild-card win over the Bills. Blake Bortles was horrible. He would have lost that day against any other playoff team. It's hard to see him having a good day at Gillette.

The Vikings and Jags were 1-2 in the league in scoring defense. The Eagles were fourth. The Pats were fifth, so the notion that they're far inferior defensively to the teams in the championship games is based on yards allowed.

The scoreboard is what matters. Points. I don't see the Jags scoring enough of them to win. Brady might have a bad hand, but at this time of year, Belichick is usually holding all the cards.

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