One thought raced through Drayton Florence’s mind.
The former Buffalo Bills’ cornerback had just recorded his team’s fourth interception – off the greatest quarterback of all time – and his chance to make every highlight reel was just a few yards away.
“I actually wanted to run Tom Brady over,” Florence remembered this week, thinking back to his defining moment with the Bills.
It’s Week 3 of the 2011 season. The undefeated Bills welcomed the undefeated New England Patriots into Ralph Wilson Stadium. At the time, it had been eight years since the Bills won a home game against the Patriots. Who can forget the 2003 home opener, when hulking defensive tackle Sam Adams rumbled his way onto the cover of Sports Illustrated by taking a pick-six of Brady to the house in a 31-0 blowout?
Eight years later, history repeated itself. Instead of running over Brady, Florence ran around him to the end zone, setting off a raucous celebration among the home crowd. Like Adams, Florence found himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated after the Bills closed out a 34-31 victory.
Can history repeat itself again? Fast forward another eight years to today, and Brady is – amazingly – still the Patriots’ quarterback. At 42, he’ll lead the undefeated Patriots into New Era Field on Sunday, looking like the man Father Time forgot.
New England is 3-0, just like the home team. Excitement for the game has reached a fever pitch. As of Thursday, the get-in price for a pair of tickets was more than $150 each on the secondary market.
“We understand what this game kind of means to fans and people around the league,” second-year quarterback Josh Allen said, “but in house, you know, we're just trying to go 1-0 every week. Doesn't matter who we're playing. We know that this team prepares well. They're 3-0 for a reason. They got one of the greatest to ever do it at the quarterback position and head coach. So yeah, we got to be fundamentally sound, we got to understand what we're trying to do, and really key on ways to try to get a job done on Sunday.”
That’s something that the Bills have been able to do just twice against the Brady-Belichick Era Patriots. The Buffalo News spoke to some of the key contributors from that 2011 game to find out how they pulled off the upset, and what that might mean for Sunday’s game.
The Bills were 2-0 entering Week 3 of the 2011 season, the same as New England. Buffalo opened that year with a huge 41-7 win over the Chiefs on the road, then came home to meet the Oakland Raiders. The Bills fell behind, 21-3, before rallying to take the lead. They lost it with less than 4 minutes remaining when Oakland’s Denarius Moore caught a 50-yard touchdown pass from Jason Campbell, but regained the advantage with 14 seconds left on a 6-yard touchdown throw from Ryan Fitzpatrick to David Nelson. That set up the unbeaten showdown with New England.
Former Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams: "It's always exciting when you're playing well and you're playing another team that's playing well. This place is a great place to play, especially when you're winning some football games. The in-game experience for us is great and for the opposing team is tough. It's a definite home-field advantage."
Former Bills wide receiver Donald Jones: “Playing the Patriots, it's not just the Bills, it's every team, just because of who they are, your juices flow a little bit more. You're extra focused for every game, but when it's Patriots week, you have to really be on your P's and Q's, because they don't make mistakes. They don't really beat themselves. Going into that week, I remember we were hot and everybody was excited. It was like, ‘Man, we've got the big, bad Patriots coming into town. If we can beat them, we're on our way.’ We were excited to get into the game.”
Former Bills right guard Chad Rinehart: “You always felt a little added stress on offense just knowing how many points they were able to put on the board.”
Florence: “We're 2-0 facing New England. You know how it is in Buffalo versus New England. We hadn't beat them at home in so long, so the excitement was there. Guys were preparing hard.
“Man, it was so electric. Seeing all of Bills Mafia hanging out – those guys get there two or three days before. You start feeling it on Thursday. It doesn't just hit you when you get to the stadium for pregame, it hits you during the week. Those fans are there. They're excited. No. 1, they hate the Patriots. No. 2, they were just looking for a great game, and we were fortunate to give them a come-from-behind win. Nobody thought we had a shot to win that game.”
The Bills entered the 2011 game against the Patriots as 7.5-point underdogs (the spread in this year’s game has the Bills as 7-point underdogs). It didn’t take long for New England to show why it was such a heavy favorite. On their first offensive possession, the Patriots drove 80 yards to a touchdown, with Brady finding Wes Welker – who beat Florence in coverage – for a 14-yard score to cap the drive. On the Bills’ second offensive play, a Ryan Fitzpatrick pass sailed through Jones’ hands, with Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington intercepting it.
Six plays later, New England was in the end zone again, with Brady finding tight end Rob Gronkowski from 1 yard out. Arrington ended the Bills’ next possession with another interception of Fitzpatrick. After the teams exchanged punts on two consecutive possessions, New England struck again. Brady led a five-play, 65-yard drive that saw Gronkowski haul in a 21-yard completion and then a 26-yard touchdown. Just like that, it was 21-0.
Former Bills tight end Scott Chandler, who later played one season with the Patriots in 2015: “I feel like half of the games I played against the Patriots, we were down by 21 at some point. Seriously.”
Jones: “Definite gut-check time. When you start off with a good record and you know the Patriots are coming into town, you feel confident. Then all of a sudden they punched us in the mouth. It was 21-0. At that point, it was like, ‘Where do we go from here? Do we go in the tank and fold, or do we try to make a comeback?’ ”
Rinehart: “Unfortunately, we were on that end a lot against them. At that point, I feel like the team almost relaxed. You didn't really feel like you had any expectations anymore. We played Oakland the week before and it was kind of similar. We got down and relaxed and were able to focus on doing what we were supposed to do rather than maybe thinking about the game so much.”
Florence: “It was a lack of communication errors early that got us behind. They weren't doing anything we didn't expect them to do. Our defensive coordinator kept us calm.”
The Bills were able to close the gap before halftime. Fitzpatrick found Stevie Johnson for an 11-yard touchdown at the two-minute warning. On New England’s ensuing drive, Bills linebacker Bryan Scott intercepted Brady for the first time in the game, bringing in a ball that bounced off the hands of running back Danny Woodhead. The Bills converted the turnover into a 42-yard field goal by Rian Lindell right before halftime to cut their deficit to 21-10.
Former Bills linebacker Bryan Scott: "I can say I picked off a Hall of Famer. It just seemed like they had our number and they were moving the ball effortlessly. After we scored, we were able to get that break, and we converted that into points. That was a 10-point swing, stopping them from scoring, and then we put three points on the board. We just fed off that. Going into halftime, we were thinking, 'Guys, we're still in this.' There's nothing to be afraid of. Guys bought into it and we came out of the locker room fired up."
Florence: “That just shows the grit on that team. We could have folded early after they scored three touchdowns, got down on ourselves and beat ourselves up, but everybody was accountable and took actions to go and get corrected. That's what we were doing after each of the mistakes we made early in the first half.”
Chandler: “We just needed to go score. If you get to 21-7, you always feel like 14 points can come quickly, so the points going into half were huge.”
Jones: “Slowly but surely, we started to chip away at that score. Coming out in the second half, it was like, ‘Yo, we can really do this.’ The biggest thing with the Patriots, and it's going to be the same thing this year – you have to be able to score points. You're not going to shut them down. If you're not going to score points, you're not going to beat them. We had the confidence we could always score points when we needed to. We had a bunch of young guys on the team who were fearless. We went out there and just started scoring points, making plays.”
The Bills punted on their first possession of the third quarter, but got the ball back when Brady was intercepted for the second time. Cornerback Leodis McKelvin perfectly read a route and stepped in front of receiver Chad Ochocinco, giving the Bills the ball back at the New England 39-yard line. Fitzpatrick found Chandler for a 3-yard touchdown pass seven plays later to cut the Bills’ deficit to 21-17.
Chandler: “They blew the coverage. I was wide open, and Fitz did a good job of finding me. That really started getting us feeling like we were back in the game and ready to go. That was when Brady started to throw the picks. Some of them were goofy for sure, but that helped us get back into it.”
The fourth quarter started with New England leading, 24-17. Brady’s third interception came when he targeted Gronkowski near the Bills’ goal line. Buffalo safety George Wilson read the play perfectly, stepping in front of Gronk to make the interception.
Former Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski: “I'm not going to lie: Playing the Bills was always tough. Especially going to the Bills. From the fans rocking the stadium, to the players on the field, they were always bringing it. It was always a hardworking game.”
After Wilson’s interception, the Bills were backed up near their own goal line, starting with the ball on the 5. Aided by penalties, it took just two plays to go 95 yards to the tying points.
Rinehart: “Unfortunately, I missed a block on first down, but they called a late hit on Fitz. … It was bittersweet. You never want to miss a block, but what came out of that was us keeping the ball.”
After a deep ball to Jones down the left sideline gained 48 yards, another penalty aided the Bills’ comeback effort. Fitzpatrick was intercepted by safety Josh Barrett in the end zone, but the play was erased because of a defensive pass interference call on Sergio Brown. Jackson punched it in from 1 yard away on the ensuing play and Lindell’s extra point tied the game, 24-24, with 10:39 remaining.
Jones: “I remember that play because there was so much going on at that point. David lined up in the wrong spot. I was supposed to be the one where he was. He took off and I had to just see where he was going and take his spot. He ended up drawing that pass interference. There are certain plays and certain moments from that game that will never leave your mind.”
For most fans, the most famous of those came next. On New England’s next possession, Brady was intercepted for a fourth time, with Florence returning it 27 yards for a touchdown. Brady's four interceptions matched a single-game career high, which he's done six times, including twice against the Bills -- with the 2003 season opener being the other.
Scott: "Has Tom thrown four picks since then? (He has not.) We're going on what, eight, nine years later? To be able to say you had a day like that, things were just going right. Obviously, it's not all just pinned on Tom, but even still, it's definitely one of those things you'll always remember. I don't think I've ever heard the Ralph that loud."
Florence: “I remember every detail, from Tom Brady getting the ball in shotgun to Marcell Dareus kind of getting in his face and getting the deflection off his helmet. We were in zone coverage, so I was able to have my eyes on the quarterback the whole time. I saw the ball pop up and I went and grabbed it on instinct. I told myself there's no way an offensive lineman or Tom Brady is tackling me.
“I actually wanted to run Tom Brady over, but I ran it into the end zone. My first instinct, though, was to run him over. Him and Wes Welker were pursuing me, and I knew Wes wasn't going to try and tackle me, because Wes didn't want to get hurt. But, yeah, I was thinking of running Tom Brady over to get a top-10 ESPN highlight.
"I still get messages today from fans saying that was the loudest they heard that stadium get after I scored that touchdown, but for me, there was so much adrenaline, I couldn't hear anything. It was complete silence. I do remember jumping into the stands and celebrating with the fans, but I couldn't hear anything. It was like being in a dream. You don't really hear things in a dream, you just feel them, but it was real life.”
Chandler: “You watch the ball go up in the air and you see ‘Flo’ get it and you're hoping he's fast enough to get to the end zone. He did a good job of following his blockers and got in there. The stadium was as loud as I think it's ever been. The place was rockin'.”
Jones: “When he caught that pick-six, it was like, ‘Oh man, we might actually do this.’ This was my second year in Buffalo. The atmosphere was crazy. Obviously, I had heard the stadium get loud for touchdowns and stuff like that, but it's nothing like when the game is close and you make a big play against the Patriots. People lose their minds.”
This being the Bills and Patriots though, meant the game wasn’t over. New England drove 71 yards in 15 plays to the game-tying touchdown after Florence’s pick-six, with Brady finding Welker from 6 yards out to get into the end zone.
After the Bills got the ball back on their own 20-yard line with 3:25 remaining, New England’s defense pulled out all the stops to try to slow down the Bills’ offense. On first down, however, Fitzpatrick connected with Jones for a 29-yard gain, giving the receiver his first, and what would be his only, 100-yard receiving game. On the play, Jones beat tight coverage at the line from Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty.
Jones: “I remember that play well because Devin is from my area, so I knew him growing up. It was a stop and go, and he went for it. Fitz put enough air on it for me to be able to get underneath the ball. I remember making the play and being like, ‘Wow, that's what’s up.’ ”
Rinehart: “I remember Vince Wilfork and their other D-tackle, it was a pretty warm game – and this is just a typical Patriots move – they're both sitting there sweating, dripping their sweat over the football. Eric Wood goes up to snap the ball and the ball is covered in sweat. He's asking the refs for a new ball and they basically tell him, ‘You're SOL. Snap the ball.’ That's one of those moves you only see from the Patriots. No one else is willing to do things like that.”
A 12-yard completion to Jackson got the Bills in New England territory at the two-minute warning. After the break, Fitzpatrick and Jackson connected on a short slant pattern. When New England’s Barrett fell down, Jackson raced toward the goal line. He was initially credited with a touchdown, but after review was ruled down on the 1-yard line. Belichick lost it on the officials, causing a lengthy delay. The Bills then elected to run down the clock by kneeling on the ball with the intention of having Lindell kick a game-winning field goal, rather than going for a touchdown and subsequently giving Brady and Co. another chance at the end zone.
Former Bills kicker Rian Lindell: "Belichick was down on the 10-yard line griping and barking. He had the scowl on, and I thought, 'This is great, to see him complaining and things finally not going their way.' It's earned, don't get me wrong, but things usually kind of end up going their way, or so it seems."
Rinehart: “You're almost thinking, ‘What's going to go wrong here?’ Something's going to happen. It's just the luck we've had. Playing in Buffalo, you're thinking, 'What can happen?' I don't think there's ever been a time I've been focused on watching the clock and seeing the seconds tick by, because you know with them, until it says zero, they're always in the game and they seem to find a way to win those types of games versus the history we had.”
Rinehart made things a little more difficult for Lindell by committing a false start, but ultimately his 28-yard field goal provided the winning points.
Lindell: "I was just trying to focus in on this kick, especially knowing it was going to be a little shorter. I thought, 'Shoot, if I miss this, I better back my bags and get out of here because the pitchforks and the torches will be out.' So I said to myself, 'Let's make this kick before you get too excited.' You could see the writing on the wall, 'We're most likely going to win this thing.' "
Rinehart: “Me getting that penalty, I remember apologizing to Lindell about it. He said if I was going to miss from that distance, I probably would have missed 5 yards closer, too. It ended up working out at the end. Whether the fans were in the first row or last row, they were cheering. You see that in college some, but as far as the NFL, it stuck out in my mind as one of the most fun games I played in. It's one of the highlights of my career, reflecting on it.”
Lindell: "Apology accepted."
Jones: “You want to talk about the crowd going crazy? They flipped that stadium on its head. Once that field goal went in, everybody lost their minds. It was almost like we won the Super Bowl. That game was definitely a highlight for me. Everybody knows who the Patriots are. Remembering how the fans reacted when that field goal went through, remembering the city that night, how crazy it was after the game down on Chippewa, it was amazing.”
Gronkowski: “It was a tough game, it really was. Obviously, I was wanting to win the game being back home, but it just didn't happen. Had to swallow that loss."
Chandler: “We were initially all just laughing at the celebration between (punter Brian) Moorman and Lindell, where Moorman wrapped his legs around Lindell's neck. It was one of the more awkward celebrations you’ll see. We all thought that was pretty good. … Looking back, that was as good of a time as any I had in Buffalo.”
Lindell: "So I make the kick, and I kind of finish my routine, and Moorman springs up and he's basically sitting on my shoulder pads. So I'm thinking, 'Shoot, he's going to fall down and break his neck or something.' So I kind of grabbed him. I think it was Scott Chandler's wife who had taken a picture. The still shot was basically me grabbing Moorman's rear. I was cradling him as he was going back down to the turf. Of course that was passed around a little bit."
Scott: "The feeling of finally beating the Patriots, man! It was such a happy moment for the fans, because it was like, 'Man, finally we have done something really, really positive that will be memorable.' It was just a great overall feeling."
The Bills couldn’t maintain those positive vibes in 2011, collapsing to a 6-10 finish after injuries started to mount to some key offensive players. The Patriots, meanwhile, recovered from the loss to finish 13-3, advancing to the Super Bowl, which they lost to the New York Giants.
Given their sustained run of success, this year’s game against New England is being looked at as a measuring stick. Perhaps the team will take some inspiration from it being “Legends Weekend.” Chandler and Florence will be just a couple of the members of the 2011 team who return for Sunday’s game.
Florence: “It's awesome that I'm able to bring my son back to the stadium. He was a young kid and doesn't really remember that (2011 game), but for him to be able to come back with me this weekend, it's going to be an awesome experience for him and myself together. I'm excited for this weekend. ... I think the Bills are putting themselves in a great position to win this game. Sean McDermott and I were together in Carolina, so I know what he's preaching to those guys, especially on the defensive side of the ball. ... The excitement is there. The young guys are playing well. The defense is playing extremely well and if they can do that this week, and prevent the explosive plays, I think they have a great chance to win.
Chandler: “We watch them every week. We'll have the whole family there this weekend and we're excited to just be a part of it again. It'll be my first game as a spectator there, so I'm excited to get a tailgate in. Hopefully not get thrown through a table, though.”
Scott: "Not too many people are giving our Bills a chance, but they need to use that feeling of 'it's us against the world.' This is an opportunity to show everyone what we're capable of doing. This is a special Bills team, especially the defense, so I'm super excited."
Williams: "The excitement is going to be through the roof. Being the Patriots, being the team they've been for the last 20 years, that's only going to add fuel to the fire."