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As the Teams Battle for the AFC East, Will Patriots-Bills Live Up to Potential As a Rivalry

They've long been in the same division, but the two foes have not had an extended run where both teams were contenders.

Before the opening of tailgate Lot 2 on Monday, Anthony Trifilo, a 40-year-old native of Lackawanna, N.Y., will strip the mannequin in his home that holds his Sunday best all week, in advance of the Week 13 primetime Bills game.

As the leader of Pancho’s Army, a Bills group named after the late superfan Ezra “Pancho Billa” Castro, Trifilo prides himself on a getup that celebrates the fan base’s multicultural roots (sombrero), as well as showing support for the military and those stricken with cancer (a military fatigue jacket sewn together with countless patches). Castro died of the disease back in 2019, shortly after Trifilo’s mother, who also had cancer.

He’ll meet up with a “band of misfits” who wear Darth Vader masks and full-body blue, red and white camouflage. Mary Wilson, the wife of the late Ralph Wilson, the Bills’ former owner, often stops by for Miller Lite, refusing the tailgate’s more upscale craft beverage choices. He made her a matching jacket, and she accepted with tears in her eyes (“I’m in the mafia now!” she said).

To say that Trifilo has seen a lifetime of events in that chaotic parking lot is an understatement. It is more than just “bad apples,” he says. More than just table slamming. Bills fans raise money for charity. Lots of it. After star corner Tre’Davious White tore his ACL last week, the fan base started donating money in multiples of 27 (his number) to the Food Bank of Northwest Louisiana, where White grew up. As of Monday, they’ve come up with more than $100,000.

Monday’s Patriots game, though, will be somewhat of a new experience. Bills-Patriots will be the epicenter of football’s weekly programming onslaught. One could argue it’s among the most significant regular-season games the franchise has played in the 2000s. With the Patriots at 8–4 and the Bills at 7–4, the winner will get a leg up on winning the division. The Bills have been an ascending team since Sean McDermott’s arrival in 2017 but are now being coupled in the same breath with a team that dominated their division for two straight decades.

It is a game that could, as Trifilo said, ignite a dormant rivalry and finally turn the AFC East into a two-team division after 20 years of predictability.

“It’s electric, man,” Trifilo said over the phone after work on Friday.

Or maybe—as Joanie Podkowinski-DeKoker, the unofficial den mother of the Bills Mafia who has made every attendable Bills game since 2010, put it—legitimize a rivalry that has only felt like one to the people in Buffalo trampled underfoot by Tom Brady over the course of two decades.

“I don’t think they feel it's a rivalry,” she said over the phone this weekend. “But we do.”

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On paper, there is an almost perfect symmetry to this matchup. Heading into Week 13, New England (+146) and Buffalo (+144) were first and second in point differential (by the way, this is only the 11th time in the Super Bowl era the league’s two best teams in point differential have faced off this late in the season). The Bills are the best team against defending “chunk” plays of 20-plus yards in the NFL, while the Patriots are the league’s third-best team in generating such plays. The Bills are the fourth-best third-down defense in the NFL, and the Patriots are the fifth-best third-down offense. The Bills are the second-best scoring offense in the NFL, and the Patriots are the best scoring defense. Perhaps most notably, Patriots quarterback Mac Jones is the best play-action passer in the NFL at the moment, hitting on 80% of his passes following a run fake. In last week’s dressing-down of the Titans, he was a perfect 11-of-11 on play-action throws.

Buffalo, as you may have guessed by now, is the best play-action defending team in the NFL. The Bills are first in opponent play-action completion percentage (48.8%), first in opponent play-action quarterback rating (50) and first in opponent play-action completion percentage over expectation (CPOE, -9.0).

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The Bills’ offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, was with Alabama when Patriots quarterback Mac Jones was a redshirt freshman. Belichick employed Daboll in two stints during New England’s dynastic early 2000s and ’10s. Their staffs carry a similar, sinister vibe based on their penchant for picking apart and carving out an opponent via its weak points.

For those of us consumed by narratives, New England’s Week 4 Sunday night game against Brady’s Buccaneers offered more in terms of thematic fireworks, even though few discussed the reality of the situation at the time. The Patriots, under Belichick, have always been a plodding franchise in the fall. Their opening months are spent tinkering and altering—building the foundation for a multiplatform offense and a defense suited to match up favorably against any of their remaining opponents. At the time the Patriots and Bucs met, one team was still riding the tailwind of a Super Bowl victory and employed the best set of skill-position players in the NFL, piloted by the greatest player in league history. The other team, driven by the fifth-picked quarterback in last year’s draft, showed its ultimate capability by playing up to its opponent, missing a win by a few centimeters on a last-second missed field goal.

New England vs. Buffalo is a far better indication of where the two teams currently stand as franchises, in a game that happens to determine the course of a division, being played in prime time, under the kind of dark, chaotic, lake-effect wind-strewn Buffalo skies that make the entire experience feel like a poorly written film constructed only of our favorite platitudes. While Belichick would obviously hate the bird’s eye view of this game, with all of us seeing it as something that means more than 60 minutes of football, it would be impossible to remove all of the extraneous, sensory lights. This is the birth of something special.

Jets-Patriots, the last faux rivalry to flirt with the idea of making the AFC East a two-team division, was always a pipe dream. At its peak, New England was just powering into its second decade, retooling after the post–Randy Moss years and becoming a far more efficient machine. The Jets were loading a powder keg full of flammable material and hoping it wouldn’t explode. (It did, as the assemblage of veteran stars on their roster caved into a sea of infighting. A year after the Jets upset the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs, the Jets were on their way to a playoff drought that has now extended beyond a decade.)

Buffalo’s resurgence has been measured. The Bills have a long-term answer at the quarterback position. A coach whose tree is about to be stripped as frequently as Belichick’s has been. A program and not just a loose assembly of players and coaches hurled at the wall. Belichick, too, seems to have shaken all ties with the past, and is reemerging after 2020’s down year faster than expected with a quarterback on track to win rookie of the year and an assembly of low-profile defensive stars (the Patriots’ turnaround oddly coincided with the trading of star cornerback Stephon Gilmore).

Last year, when the Bills swept the Patriots, it was the first time New England had lost both games to an in-division opponent since 2000. Their second matchup was also on Monday Night Football, albeit stripped of any excitement. New England’s offense was dragged along by a limping Cam Newton and the defense, without a significant number of players who opted out during the first season affected by COVID-19, had no counterpunch for Josh Allen, Daboll and what ended up being one of the most efficient matchup offenses in the NFL.

Now, everything has changed. The Bills have leveled out, and the Patriots have recovered. Both, conveniently, on a similar plane with complementary strengths and weaknesses.

Frank Barber, a high school principal who lives about two hours south of Buffalo, goes to games in character as HannaBill Lectar. He wears a muzzling mask reminiscent of the Anthony Hopkins character and paints his face and bald head various Bills colors (he made a trip to Home Depot on Friday for more paint after school let out). Monday will be a surreal moment. For a decade spanning the ’80s and early ’90s, he never gave a Patriots game a second thought. A win was inevitable. For two decades starting in ’00, that changed. He said his 22-year-old son is still stepping into his Bills fandom, uncertain of a world not blanketed by Belichick and Patriot dominance.

He’ll have that to contemplate on the long drive after he cuts out of school after lunch period Monday; the idea of a rivalry being (re)born later that day, and what it could mean for a group of fans still experiencing a new post–Brady existence.

“We’d never had a legitimate rivalry with them,” he said. “When we dominated them we dominated them. But I do feel like this can become a legitimate rivalry.”

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