It’s not easy being a Bills fanatic outside of Western New York. Local media has scant coverage of the team and most news comes from the national media. The Internet is a great tool (I thank God everyday that Al Gore had the foresight to create it) – with sites like Bills Daily you can keep up with what’s going on, well, daily.
What makes being a fan from afar even more difficult is living in “enemy territory”. Far from the land of chicken wings, friendly people and lawn shrines to the Bills (or the Virgin Mary, depending on which religion is more important to you), I live outside of Boston with fans who root for the dreaded New England Patriots.
The New England Patriots. The Pats. The Super Bowl XXXVI champs. Team of Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady. It’s enough to make you want to puke.
The New England fans do like their Patriots, and there’s a whole lot more of them after January 2002. Perhaps it’s just the culture in New England, but the over the top fanaticism I see in places like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, KC and Green Bay is lacking here (Raiders fans are fanatical as well, but in a sick kind of Conan the Barbarian meets Star Trek convention kind of way). I have yet to run into anyone who lives and breathes the Pats, has a Pats tattoo, and really understand the game (but as a general rule I don’t go looking for these people). Everyone is happy that they won the Big One, but seems blissfully ignorant that they were one stupid “tuck rule” away from being an also-ran.
Your average Pats fan knows nothing about Buffalo except that it snows like crazy, is responsible for the “Buffalo Wing” and screwed over Doug Flutie. They fail to see that most of New England isn’t exactly a topical paradise in January either. I’ve made it a point to never trust anyone who calls wings “Buffalo Wings” – if you have to specify “Buffalo” in the name you’re not eating anything good (cheer up – most places with “Buffalo Wings” also sell them teriyaki style or plain as well, depending on the breading and sauce they use). They forget that Flutie was once a Patriot but was exiled to Chicago with less fanfare than he got when he packed is bags for San Diego.
While I’m not one to take an “in-your-face” approach to fans of opposing teams, I do enjoy subtly antagonizing the natives. My car has Bills license plate holders both front and rear. I have a silver Bills emblem on the back of the car as well. At work I carry my Bills coffee mug wherever I go and if you stop into my office you can’t help but see the huge 3’x5’ flag that is the centerpiece of the main wall. One of these days I know some crazed local is going to take the flag in either a fit of anger or a fit of celebration.
I take some good-natured ribbing from people for not supporting the home team, but generally I know that I know volumes more about football than these people so it doesn’t matter. I know from experience that after a Bills loss to the Pats life will be tough – the comments, the media hype, the sense that you’ve been thrown into Bizzaro World where the good guys losing and the bad guys wining is a good thing. Last year’s sweep was tough, but I am hoping that things are better this year. In any event, that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach is starting to grow as we approach week 1 – what if this is another Bills defeat? Perish the thought, but it could happen and I don’t want to be around if it does.
It’s bad enough that the Patriots are lead by a late round quarterback who looks like Matt Damon in shoulder pads and eye black. This guy now has a ring and an MVP trophy (and, I imagine, some really cool pictures of his trip to Disney), and he’s a deity in New England. If he’s not on the radio talking about how much fun he’s having he’s dating someone like Tara Reid and generally making you rethink why you dropped out of football after Pop Warner. But something isn’t right – this guy was drafted in the 6th round! How could so many NFL scouts assess him as having so little talent? By all rights this guy should be selling insurance somewhere after spending 2 years being a third string guy. This guy should be aspiring to be Todd Collins, not the ubiquitous media presence trying to sell me a Dunkin’ Donuts breakfast sandwich. Where is the justice? My guess is that justice will in fact come, in the form of a 65.6 QB rating one season or a terrible tanning accident on a beach full of actress/models somewhere on the coast of France. Simply put, this guy’s charmed life can’t go on forever, can it?
Living amongst and working with Pats fans, you can see why Sunday, September 7th has been circled on my calendar since the schedules came out. For years I’ve been going to the home opener, and last year I made the 500+ mile hajj to Orchard Park twice so I could see the Patriots game as well. This year I get to kill two birds with one stone – with today’s gas prices I figure I’ll save $828.37 on fuel alone.
Maybe I’m a victim of the local media hype for the Pats, but week 1 has me worried. Without a doubt the Pats look good – very good.
Like the Bills, the Patriots made some free agent acquisitions on the defensive side of the ball that should payoff. Linebacker Roosevelt Colvin was brought in as an active, ball-rushing guy to make tackles in the backfield and create sacks. At safety, Rodney Harrison was signed away from the Chargers to add more strength and leadership to a talented secondary. Former Bill Ted Washington was acquired from Chicago to block up the middle.
Last year New England finished the season with the 23rd ranked defense, allowing 336 yards per game. They were 31st against the run, giving up 137 yards per game but had 29 defensive takeaways. By contrast the Bills were ranked 15th in total defense (324 yards/game), 29th against the run (132 yards/game) and generated a woeful 19 turnovers. Jump ahead to this preseason and you’ll find that the Patriots have the 7th rated total defense through their 4 games, allowing 252 yards a game, 11th against the run allowing 91 yards a game and have generated 10 turnovers. Buffalo is 27th in total defense (317 yards/game), 9th against the run (88 yards/game) and has generated 8 turnovers.
It’s hard to make sense of the stats because the preseason is a mix of regular season players and reserves who won’t see the field much. The Bills and the Pats have also not played the same opponents. Neither team has unveiled their “real” playbooks thus far. What the numbers would seem to indicate is that the Pats defense has gotten better since last year, and last year they beat the Bills handily – 38-7 in Buffalo and 27-17 on their home turf.
The Pats lead the NFL in preseason sacks with 19, but all you had to do was see their game against the Bears this week to see the type of damage they can do in the backfield. On one play, Colvin got past the offensive line so fast that he pancaked Kordell Stewart as he turned out of his 5 step drop to make the handoff to Kevin Faulk. This guy is good. They also gave the Bears offensive line fits in creating running holes – they completely shut down the middle against the run.
The truly scary part about New England in the preseason has been their offense. Brady has been stellar. He has a 116.7 passer rating and has thrown 6 touchdowns with no interceptions. Not bad for a team that has thrown nearly twice as much as it has run through 4 games. Troy Brown is the number one receiver for the Pats, but their stable of receivers has allowed them to do some interesting things like lining him up as a third or fourth guy against a zone defense. At least twice Brown has had easy scores because he didn’t come off the line as a number one choice to get the ball – he was either wide open or had a mismatch against a linebacker. Brady and his receivers are in mid-season form with regards to their timing patterns, and New England has used a lot of timed passes in the preseason. Brady has been able to put the ball right where the receiver expects it on a timing pattern, and even if the coverage is good the catch is made. Ask any NFL corner and he’ll tell you that a well thrown timing pass is almost impossible to defend.
While it’s true that the Patriots running game is probably their weak point, the offense as a whole looks good. The Pats seem to be able to keep the ball and the chains moving and their red zone offense by the starters has been good.
When you add up an improved defense and an offense that seems to be firing on all cylinders and understand that Bill Belichick out-coached Gregg Williams twice last year you can see why I’m already starting to get nervous about the opener. I think this has the potential to be a great game (why else would I drive so far to see it? Oh yeah – the wings). Those fans counting on an easy or lopsided win will likely be in for a shock – I don’t see the Bills dominating this contest.
If the Bills lose this game I think I’ll call in sick for work – unless the flag in my office needs rescuing.
Tony Bogyo will be reporting on the Bills all season long in his humorous way.
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