ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Micah Hyde sat in deep center field as Mac Jones took the snap on a first-and-10 with a little more than five minutes remaining in the first quarter. The Patriots were trying to answer a Josh Allen touchdown drive so peppered with hammering runs and balletic, improbable passes that the stadium was already a deafening cacophony of ’80s metal riffs and hollering fans in industrial ski gear, sipping homemade liquid courage from Aquafina water bottles turned cocktail shakers.
Jones was doing his best Tom Brady impression on the play, pump-faking a quick-release strike to a receiver dragging over the middle, which seemed to isolate Hyde in the middle of the field. Wide receiver Nelson Agholor had a step on Bills cornerback Levi Wallace, and Jones must have thought he had enough leeway to pull the trigger on a deep shot. He did not count on the defiance of physics.
Upon seeing Jones position his body for the throw, Hyde began a 21.4-yard sprint toward the ball which, according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, he covered in under three seconds flat. Even if he’d been purposely baiting Jones, he would have never left that much of a cushion. This was an all-out track and field dash toward the football in an attempt to prevent his opponents from believing the illusion they belonged here at all.
The result was a grab reminiscent of an out-of-position outfielder trying to rob a baseball at the warning track. Arms out, Hyde caught the ball at Agholor’s ear hole, with Agholor’s arms stretched out wide awaiting the pass, expecting it to be there.
Forty days ago, in this very stadium, Hyde embodied the collective frustration of a Bills team that had just suffered an emotionally debilitating loss to its divisional nemesis on national television. He was the last guy on the screen trailing Damien Harris at the tail end of a 67-yard touchdown run. He was the last guy at a press conference lectern, sparring with a reporter who’d just asked him if the defense had been embarrassed by New England’s pummeling, 46-rush game plan that stuck a bony finger into the collective chests of a team that held its ability to stop the run sacrosanct.
At that moment, there was no way to tell if this would be the beginning of a tailspin or the start of an awakening. For so long, the Patriots have manipulated the AFC East to their liking. Even during a season in which the Bills were clearly more talented, they had to contend with the idea that perhaps they were not physical enough. That they could get out-coached under the bright lights. That their own arctic environment could be turned against them. The Bills lost their next game, to the Buccaneers in overtime, before winning four straight, including their second matchup with the Patriots in Foxboro.
The interception dug loose any gravel preventing a complete landslide of the Patriots. The Bills quickly scored again and again (and again). The end result was a demolition that let loose a primal exorcism for a fan base that needed to see New England convincingly in their rearview mirror before they could once again affix their eyes on a Super Bowl pipe dream.
At the half, the score was 27–3, the largest deficit of a Bill Belichick team after two quarters. Ever. By the start of the fourth, when Allen darted his fourth touchdown of the night to put the Bills up by 30, Orchard Park was complete mayhem. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” blared over the sound system, followed by The White Stripes and Rage Against the Machine, the kind of playlist that would egg on the destruction of every still-standing folding table in Western New York.
Hyde, perhaps more than Allen, was the perfect ring leader of the chaos. He was, fairly or unfairly, the face of a bitter loss, but he remains the face of Buffalo’s collective rise—a face of a team built brilliantly on the shoulders of castaway role players brought here to upend the division.
On nearly every attempt Saturday, Jones had to deal with a mirage at the safety position, with Hyde and Jordan Poyer shifting from the box to the deep third, from blitzing backer to deep cover safety. Almost every throw, by necessity, was relatively conservative. Only three of his attempts stretched beyond 20 yards. Jones was able to connect deep only on a broken play. When the Patriots tried to run the ball, they were challenged collectively, with Hyde and Poyer throwing their bodies at offensive tackles double their size, collapsing the run lanes as a result.
The ball was repeatedly turned back over to the offense, and on each possession, Allen methodically knifed his way down the field, buoyed by a running game that topped five yards per carry. It was the first offense ever to start the game by scoring four straight touchdowns against a Belichick defense. They almost doubled that total by the end of the night.
The beatdown was the visual accompaniment to a perfect night in Buffalo, the end of a tailgate that started hours earlier under a piercing sun. Temperatures hovered just above 10 degrees. It was so cold the blue sanitation water in the portable toilets froze solid. Burn barrels and flipped-open tailgates with half-slugged bottles of Jack Daniels bordered the stadium alongside a phalanx of Zubaz-wearing worshippers ready to topple the place upside down.
After the game, Hyde sat in the same space he was in more than a month ago, eventually, playfully asking the same reporter if he had any more questions. He reiterated what he said that night—that he’d remember how he felt after their first loss to New England and the perceived disrespect. Even after one of the most dominant playoff victories in recent NFL history, the Bills were protective of their identity. They were insistent that this was who they were all along, even if we couldn’t see it back then.