Call it a game between teams in the same division.
Call it the Buffalo Bills’ annual chance to win the lottery, catch lightning in a bottle or find a needle in a haystack.
Call it almost anything you like.
Just don’t call what the Bills and New England Patriots have a rivalry.
“It wasn’t pertaining to the Bills and Patriots, but somebody – and I can't remember who – said, ‘You can’t call it a rivalry when they kick your butt all the time,' ” Thurman Thomas said the other day.
Since 2000, the Patriots have done the kicking to the tune of 31 victories in 36 games. The last 18 seasons are the primary reason the Patriots have more wins against the Bills (72) than any team since both franchises began playing in the American Football League in 1960.
Not coincidentally, that’s the stretch during which the Patriots established their dynastic identity with Bill Belichick as their coach and Tom Brady as their quarterback.
Thomas had the good fortune of not experiencing any of that humiliation as a player. The last of his 12 seasons with the Bills was 1999 and he finished his NFL career a year later in Miami.
But no one who ever wore a Bills uniform understood the meaning of a rivalry better than the Hall of Fame running back, whose No. 34 will be officially retired during a ceremony at halftime of Monday night's game against the Patriots at New Era Field.
Thomas was the keeper of a flame that he, alone, made certain burned its hottest before each game against another AFC East opponent – the Dolphins. He did it with those daggers that seemed to fly from his eyes in the direction of every reporter who dared to enter the locker room during Miami Week. He did it with his brusque, angry tone when answering questions about those two regular-season games per year and occasional postseason encounters.
Now Bills vs. Dolphins, Thomas will tell you, was a rivalry, one he learned all about upon joining the Bills as a second-round draft pick in 1988. The primary instructors were the family of his wife, Patti, a Western New York native Thomas met when they were at Oklahoma State.
“Look, I got drafted by Buffalo and the first thing that my brothers-in-law told me was that, ‘We bleeping hate Miami,’ ” he recalled. “And I was like, ‘OK, tell me why.’ They said, ‘Well, in the '70s, they beat us 20 damn times in a row,’ which is still a record today, I think. They said, ‘We hate them, we don't like anything about them.’
“I know how my family felt, but that’s how everybody else felt out there, too. They hated them. So my mind was like, ‘Alright, well, I can get up for every other team, but when (the Miami game) comes, it's a different week for me because I know how much the fans want this.’ ”
Despite rain and temperatures in the 30s, fans rooting for the Bills will show up in healthy numbers at New Era Field Monday night. They’ll use their vocal cords to help make it as difficult as possible for Brady and the rest of the Patriots' offense to function in their typical, well-oiled-machine fashion. They’ll express their hatred for Belichick’s Patriots with as much fervor as they and/or their parents/grandparents did for Don Shula’s Dolphins.
But it won’t be the same, because their wrath is fueled by envy, not competitiveness. Beating the Patriots doesn’t change the script. The Pats will still have an eye on the big prize, while the Bills will be resuming with their rebuilding “process.”
“(The Dolphins) were our rivals because we beat them, we win our division and if they beat us, they win the division. That was it,” Thomas said. “And watching Jim (Kelly) and (Dan) Marino go at it, it was the best of both worlds."
Now, best only applies to the team on the other sideline.
Best coach. Best quarterback. Those are the ingredients to a formula that has produced five Super Bowl wins and constantly kept the Patriots in the hunt to win the Lombardi Trophy.
For the Bills, the only constant has been change. Sean McDermott is in his second season as the Bills' coach. Derek Anderson is in his second game as their quarterback and third starter they've had in eight weeks. That's the formula for a team that has managed to stumble into one playoff appearance in the past 18 seasons, has a 2-5 record and can't find the end zone.
Predictably, the Pats are a two-touchdown favorite Monday night.
“It's just that we have not put out there a competitive team, year after year after year, to compete with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick,” Thomas said. “We just haven’t.”
Which is why Bills vs. Patriots might be a lot of things, but what it’s not is a rivalry.