The Bills and Patriots have been playing each other since 1960. There have been some very memorable match ups between the two ball clubs. The Patriots’ epic Monday Night comeback in the 2009 season-opener, Roland Hooks’ “Hail Mary” reception in 1981 and the teams’ respective 31-0 wins in 2003 are among those. However, these teams have played so many times, it is easy to forget some of the other great moments of this rivalry. Let’s look at five such games.
The very first time that the Bills and the Patriots made it to the playoffs… they played each other. The teams finished the season tied atop the AFL East division with identical 7-6-1 records.
The playoff game was held in ancient War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo under a constant snowfall. Right off the bat, it was obvious which team showed up to play on this day. Bills’ star Elbert Dubenion fumbled on the opening kickoff, which led to a quick field goal by legend Gino Cappalletti. Moments later, Babe Parilli hit underrated Larry Garron for a long strike and it was 10-0 right off the bat.
Buffalo’s lone score came on a gorgeous pass play from Daryle Lamonica to Dubenion. “Golden Wheels” took the throw in stride and raced the rest of an AFL playoff record 93 yards for the score. The Bills faked the PAT and went for two as Lamonica rolled out and hit linebacker John Tracey to cut Boston’s lead to 16-8.
New England dominated the 4th quarter with Parilli, Garron and Cappelletti hitting on two more big plays. Cappalletti added four field goals in the harsh conditions to give Boston the 26-8 win.
The Patriots went on to get crushed in the AFL championship game one week later. Sid Gillman’s San Diego Chargers carved them up to the tune of 610 total yards.
Buffalo won the next two AFL titles, defeating San Diego both times. The Bills’ defense stifled the high-powered Chargers attack in those games.
The Bills and Patriots have been in the same division since those AFL days, yet have not faced off in the playoffs since!
A new era of Patriots’ football dawned in 1973 as Chuck Fairbanks coached his first game on the sidelines of Schaefer Stadium. This game became classic because of the individual greatness of one OJ Simpson. Simpson was not even supposed to be integral to Lou Saban’s game plan on this day. He wanted to use Simpson as a decoy while his new back Larry Watkins would shock the Patriots handling the ball frequently.
Well, the game plan worked, and Simpson still ran wild. In the first quarter, Simpson swept right and exploded down the sidelines for an 80-yard score. This type of dash became second nature for Simpson over the next four seasons.
OJ added another score in the fourth against a gassed Patriots’ defense. He ended up with a then-record 250 yards. Watkins added 105 of his own. Buffalo won 31-13 as a side note.
Later in the season, when New England traveled to snowy Buffalo, Simpson rushed for another 219 yards in a 37-13 Bills’ win.
OJ Simpson’s 1973 season is among the greatest individual efforts in NFL history. He annihilated Jim Browns’ single-season rushing record. His mark stood for eleven seasons with the Rams’ Eric Dickerson eclipsing his mark in 1984.
The Bills and Patriots were in completely different worlds by week 12 of the 1991 season. The Patriots were coming off their worst season ever in 1990. They finished at 1-15, were involved in the Victor Kiam fiasco, and hired Dick MacPherson as head coach.
The Bills, on the other hand, had an offense which was firing on all cylinders led by all-world and eventual NFL MVP, Thurman Thomas. Buffalo came into this game at 10-1 and looked like they would roll early. Thomas made an incredible catch across the middle and darted to the goal putting Buffalo up 10-0.
Late in the half, though, Jim Kelly started to have issues in the passing game. He got picked off four times by the strength of this Patriots’ team, their defensive backfield. Maurice Hurst jumped two in-routes and New England just kept hanging around.
Right before halftime, Hugh Millen connected with Irving Fryar for a 50-yarder cutting the lead to 10-9.
The Pats finally went ahead late in the fourth when Millen ran it in himself. The TD put the Patriots up 16-13. Kelly uncharacteristically struggled in the two-minute offense which culminated in an errant fourth-and-9 throw and a New England victory.
This would be the high point of the two-year MacPherson-Millen project. The good news for the Patriots was this nightmarish era paved the way to the hiring of Bill Parcells and the drafting of Drew Bledsoe. Better days were ahead!
For Buffalo, they did not lose a meaningful game again until Super Bowl XXVI, when they were beat up by Washington. This was their second of four straight Super Bowl seasons.
This was indeed the “Golden Era” of Bills football.
The 1994 Patriots were a thrilling team to watch. Bledsoe was as advertised and Parcells was doing what he did with the Giants; building a tough, defensive-minded team that won more than it lost. In its way was the AFC’s Goliath of the previous four season, the Buffalo Bills.
The Bills came into their week 15 game against New England at just 7-7, but still would make the playoffs by winning out. They were short-handed, however, as Jim Kelly suffered a brutal knee injury one week earlier in their game vs. the Vikings.
Surprisingly, Buffalo jumped all over New England in the first half. Frank Reich hit little-used fullback Nate Turner on a beautifully designed wheel route and tough Carwell Gardner scored from the three, giving Buffalo a 17-3 lead. Then, the roof caved in.
In a game eerily reminiscent of their Super Bowl XXVII loss to the Cowboys, once the Bills got unnerved, they self-destructed. Reich threw two interceptions and Andre Reed added two fumbles. To their credit, New England jumped on the Bills’ throat scoring an incredible thirty-eight straight points. Bledsoe was on point all second half and Ricky Reynolds added a pick six.
The Patriots were on their way to the playoffs for the first time since 1986, while Buffalo would fail to qualify for the first time since 1987.
The Parcells’ era reach its crescendo after the 1996 season with an appearance in the Super Bowl. Buffalo made the playoffs four of the next 5 seasons but would never reach the success of their teams from the early-1990’s.
In 2000, the Patriots were in their first season under Bill Belichick and the Bills were in their last season under Wade Phillips. New England came into the game with a 2-6 record, while Buffalo was 4-4.
Buffalo starter Rob Johnson was injured so the popular Doug Flutie got the start and since he was beloved in the Boston area, nobody seemed to mind. As he did much of the 2000 season, Flutie struggled, however, going only 18 of 37 in the passing game.
The 2000 Bills were very strong defensively. They knocked out Drew Bledsoe and tormented back up John Friesz the rest of the afternoon. New England finally tied the game with nine minutes left on a fourth down run by JR Redmond. The score was 10-10 at that point.
With two minutes left, Adam Vinatieri nailed a clutch 43-yarder. Steve Christie answered with a 49-yarder for the Bills at the buzzer. And, in overtime, after a long Shawn Bryson run, Christie nailed the winner giving the Bills a 16-13 victory.
While this game was not beautiful by any measure, it does serve as a significant historical barometer. Nobody was throwing around “genius” when talking about Bill Belichick as a head coach. And nobody could have watched this 2000 Patriots’ team and guessed this would be a World Championship team just one season later.
At the same time, nobody could have guessed that the proud Bills’ franchise would be in their first of now 17 consecutive non-playoff seasons. For those who covered the Bills and Patriots in 2000, it seems like forever ago that these two teams have stood on equal ground.
Buffalo hopes a win this week helps them get back to the playoffs. New England, of course, would prefer its dominance continue.
Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_Bills