The New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills have been division rivals since the days of the old AFL in the 1960s. Joining the league as two of its founding members, they shared a spot in the Eastern Division that would become the AFC East after the NFL-AFL merger.
Playing each other twice each season, the Patriots and Bills have therefore met 124 different times through the years. Of those meetings, however, only one has come in the playoffs.
That game took place almost 60 years ago, on December 28, 1963, and was the first of its kind.
The AFL, after all, was different from today’s NFL. Split into two divisions of four teams each, the two best teams would meet in the championship game. Through the first three seasons finding those teams was no problem, with the respective division winners always having better records than the other teams.
In 1963, however, one of the divisions saw the lead be shared by two clubs with identical 7-6-1 records. To determine who would play the Western Division’s San Diego Chargers an extra game was needed, and so the Patriots traveled to Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium to take on the Bills in the first ever AFL playoff game.
Playing in front of 33,000 spectators, the visitors — back then still named the Boston Patriots — dominated from the start. The game’s first drive ended with Gino Cappelletti kicking a 28-yard field goal to give them a 3-0 lead. New England’s kicker and wide receiver was the standout performer in the first half, kicking three field goals and an extra point to account for 10 of his team’s points.
The other six came courtesy of Larry Garron, who took a Babe Parilli swing pass 59-yards to the end zone. At halftime, the Patriots were up 16-0.
Not only did the team’s offense make big plays, its defense did as well. Safety Ross O’Hanley intercepted Bills quarterback Daryle Larmonica in the second quarter to stop Buffalo’s best scoring opportunity of the first half. O’Hanley finished the game with two interceptions, while the Patriots defense as a whole registered a combined six takeaways.
As a result of those, the Bills were never able to overcome their 16-point halftime deficit. They did cut the lead in half when Larmonica threw a 93-yard touchdown to Elbert Dubenion in the third quarter and also successfully completed a two-point pass afterwards, but Boston’s defense held firm to keep Buffalo out of reach throughout the rest of the game.
When Parilli and Garron connected on another touchdown in the fourth quarter to put the team up 23-8, it was all but over. Cappelletti added a fourth field goal to finalize the score at 26-8.
Boston would get blown out by the Chargers in the championship game, losing with a final score of 51-10. Nonetheless, the win over Buffalo one week earlier was a historical one: it was the AFL’s first ever playoff contest, and it sealed the Patriots’ first division title.
Despite regularly crossing paths in the regular season over the next six decades, the game would also remain the last playoff meeting between the two rivals. On Sunday, however, that streak will come to an end.
The Patriots will hope for a repeat of 1963.