This day was always coming, even if it took far longer to get here than the vast majority of Buffalo Bills fans had hoped.
Once Tom Brady leaves the Patriots, so the common refrain went, the door would swing wide open for the Bills to take over ownership of the AFC East … or at least have more of a fighting chance to do so.
Now that Brady said goodbye to the Pats, formally announcing his departure Tuesday on social media and reportedly agreeing to terms on a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it’s absolutely fair to conclude the Bills are hands-down favorites for the division title.
History makes a pretty compelling case.
During 20 seasons in New England, Brady’s record against the Bills was 32-3. Of the losses, one carries the asterisk of his early exit from a meaningless 2014 season finale.
The wins are the most by a quarterback against any team in NFL history. Second is Brady’s 29 against the New York Jets. Third is Brett Favre’s 26 against the Detroit Lions.
Against the Bills, Brady completed 738 of 1,154 passes (a 63.95 completion percentage) for 8,669 yards and 70 touchdowns, with 25 interceptions and a passer rating of 97.9.
The present makes a strong argument, too.
The Bills’ offense received a major boost with the acquisition of one of the NFL’s most talented receivers, Stefon Diggs, in a blockbuster trade with the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night. Josh Allen, while still in need of improvement, has shown at least enough progress for a reasonable expectation that he’ll make more strides, especially now that he has a true No. 1 pass-catcher and an offensive line that has had more time to mesh since its 2019 reconstruction.
Factor in a defense that ranked third in the NFL and looks to have received additional fortification even before General Manager Brandon Beane goes to work with the seven draft picks he still has after the bounty of choices he gave up for Diggs.
“I think it puts everything on an even playing field,” former Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said by phone Tuesday from his home in Arizona. “I mean, Tom Brady is good for three or four wins a year, so now it brings (the Patriots) back into the pack.”
Gone are the days when the Bills, and especially their fans, looked at the Patriots with envy. All those Super Bowl trophies and the obnoxious mantra about “The Patriot Way” being the gold standard that every other team could only try to mimic but never truly match are things of the past.
Alexander still expects the Patriots to be a good team, and it’s hard to disagree. Brady might be gone, but the other half of what greatly contributed to their six Super Bowl victories since 2001, Bill Belichick, remains.
Belichick has managed to find ways to make the Pats competitive during Brady’s temporary absences through the years, due to injury or suspension, and it’s hardly a reach to think he’ll do it again.
“Whoever the quarterback is who comes in behind him doesn’t have to be as great as Tom,” Alexander said. “Because the team atmosphere and the environment they’ve developed up there will make his departure not as impactful as some people think it will be. They’ve shown that they’ve been able to win with other guys, Jimmy Garoppolo being one of them, Jacoby Brissett being another. They might not be 14-2, 13-3, but they still may be 9-7 or 10-6, which is still competing to win the division and, obviously, being a wild-card team.
“So, I don’t think they drop off the map completely, because they’re such a well-coached football team. And well-coached football teams can sometimes overcome some things and still be a fringe playoff team and maybe, if they get some good quarterback play, still be in there pretty solidly.”
That’s a big “if.” Quarterback play drives success in the NFL. The best teams almost always have the best QBs, as Brady has proved time and again and as Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes demonstrated last month in the Super Bowl.
Without Brady to face at least twice each year, the Bills can better concentrate their efforts on the entirety of their season, rather than those spots on the schedule when they face New England. Among Sean McDermott’s many qualities that Alexander came to admire most in the three years since McDermott became the Bills’ coach was constantly reminding his team there’s a much larger goal than winning two specific games.
“For so long, the emphasis becomes so much about Tom Brady, you feel like, if you beat him twice in a year and you lose the rest of the games, you say, ‘Well, at least we beat Tom Brady,’ ” Alexander said. “I think Sean has really shifted away from that as far as, ‘Let’s be great every single week, regardless of who our opponent is, so that we can achieve our ultimate goal. And that’s not to beat Tom Brady. That’s to win a championship.’
“What happens with younger guys is they get so enamored with it being about Tom Brady that, when they go to play him, they lose focus of their job. I won’t say star-struck, but you kind of get caught up in the façade of who you’re playing against rather than, ‘Hey, I’m out here just trying to beat this team.’ ”
Now, it looks as if that task has become at least somewhat easier.