I’m sitting in a sports bar in downtown Las Vegas (the gambling mecca’s smaller, seedier, much cooler tourist district, relative to the more popularly gaudy Strip), watching the Buffalo Bills take on the dreaded New England Patriots in a Sunday-night game with my brother-in-law.
It’s the evening before Halloween 2005. The Patriots have won the last two Super Bowls and three of the most-recent four, but are not yet the unstoppable offensive power they would become a couple years later.
A season earlier, the Bills came as close as they have come since Home Run Throwback to reaching the playoffs, going 9-7 but losing to Pittsburgh’s third- and fourth-stringers in the season finale. So, being the Bills, they released Drew Bledsoe after the near-miss, handing the veteran’s job to thoroughly untested J.P. Losman, who promptly lost it to journeyman Kelly Holcomb.
Buffalo is somehow only a game behind the 4-3 Patriots heading into the Sunday nighter. I wrote a weekly column picking games against the spread for various newspapers through the 1990s and early 2000s, but, beyond the occasional whim-based parlay card of the type sold in your less-reputable gin mills, had never bet real money on football games until this first trip to Vegas.
Emboldened by coming out ahead on the daytime contests, as well as Saturday’s college-football action at $5 or $10 per bet, I decide to go a little bigger on the Sunday-night game. I figure that if there is such a thing as an absolute lock in the National Football League, it is New England stomping Buffalo in Foxboro in prime time (the same situation the present-day 5-4 Bills find themselves in on Monday). So I put a $100 on the Patriots, considering the relatively small seven-point spread a bargain for such a sure thing.
So, of course, Buffalo dominates the first three quarters, with Holcomb excelling at handing the ball to Willis McGahee again and again, helping keep the ball away from Tom Brady for 35 of the first 50 minutes. Holcomb even manages to hit a big one, his 55-yard touchdown pass to Eric Moulds putting the Bills ahead 10-7 early in the third quarter.
Buffalo’s defense does its part, keeping New England’s running game, then the dominant factor in its offense, in check, while sacking Brady three times back when such an accomplishment was feasible.
Aaron Schobel gets two of those three sacks, the second coming early in the fourth quarter, jarring the ball loose to be recovered by the immortal Lavale Sape. That sets up Rian Lindell’s second field goal of the quarter, giving the Bills a nine-point lead with 10 minutes to play.
My bet virtually doomed, as the Patriots would need 17 points to cover the spread, I felt the karma incurred by betting against the hometown team filling the crowded bar.
“Watch,” I says to my brother-in-law. “The Bills are going to find a way to lose the game AND the Patriots are going to lose my bet.
Adam, a devout Steelers fan, cackles and nods.
“You’re probably right. These are the Bills.”
I am. And they are.
Brady immediately hits his longest throw of the night, a 37-yarder to Deion Branch to set up a 1-yard Corey Dillon run, cutting Buffalo’s lead to two.
Two plays later, inevitability kicks in. Holcomb is sacked and fumbles.
Patriots ball. Brady throws to Branch for 22. Dillon rolls into the end zone again.
In a minute-and-a-half of game time, a nine-point Buffalo lead turns into a five-point deficit. This being in the time before Brady and Bill Belichick began choking out vanquished opponents well after the competitive portion of a game had ended, that leaves me hoping for Holcomb to throw a pick-six.
Which he does not. Bills lose. I lose.
There have been other agonizing Buffalo defeats in Foxboro over the past couple decades. There was Leodis McKelvin’s fumbled kickoff return in 2009, which gave the Patriots a win in a game Buffalo led by 11 points with five minutes remaining. And the first game of the Dick Jauron era, in which the Bills led the 2006 opener by 10 at halftime, yet wound up losing by two, with an end-zone sack of J.P. Losman providing the final margin. And Ryan Fitzpatrick’s comeback-snuffing fourth-quarter interceptions in 2010 and ‘12 (it should probably be noted that in between, on New Year’s Day 2012, in the 2011 season finale, Fitz threw two touchdown passes as Buffalo jumped out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead, then tossed up four interceptions as the Patriots scored 49 unanswered points).
There could well be another coming on Monday. The 2015 Patriots are unbeaten, but no longer torching the league as they were during the season’s first month, with three of their last five wins coming by a touchdown or less, including last Sunday’s one-point escape in New Jersey against the Giants.
Their two biggest weapons not named Brady or Rob Gronkowski in their 40-32 win over Buffalo in Week 2—running back Dion Lewis and wide receiver Julian Edelman—are out with injuries, while their offensive line and secondary are banged up to varying degrees.
So the possibility of an upset exists, particularly if Rex Ryan can find a way to get the most expensive defensive line in football history to make the investment worthwhile. The Giants’ blueprint for beating New England both times the teams have met in the Super Bowl has been pressuring Brady up the middle, preventing him from stepping into his throws, and Buffalo’s defensive front should be capable of doing that to some degree.
After the way he shredded the Bills’ pass-defense schemes in Week 2 (38-of-59 for 466 yards and three scores, in case you’ve forgotten), it’s also very possible Brady will adjust to the loss of Edelman as well as he did against New York, throwing even more to Gronkowski and Danny Amendola. Shifting to a run-heavy game plan featuring LaGarrette Blount would also be a very Belichick-y thing to do.
The most likely scenario would be Brady, Belichick and the various wounded and previously anonymous Patriots toying with the Bills for a while, even spotting them a sizeable lead, before pulling things out in a morally and/or legally questionable manner.
New England is, at press time, a seven-point favorite, just as it was on that Sunday night 10 years ago. While I won’t be betting on the game (and, of course, strongly discourage illegal gambling in any form), if I were, it would be tough not to play it the exact same way.
(Editor's Note: You, too, can follow @DavidStaba on the Twitter. Come on. You know you want to.)