Everyone remembers high school sports, hopefully fondly. And as everyone who played (which I’m gonna go out on a limb here and assume is most of you) remembers, when we’re all old and grey and watching our grandkids play in the autumn leaves and we’re wearing Patriots World Super Bowl Champions 2053 sweatshirts, I’d bet any sum of money that you’ll still remember that one school when you saw them on the calendar and thought “oooooh yeah, we got _________ this week”.
Those were the games when you knew you had to get a good night’s sleep and you’d better bring it in practice. The games where you’d wake up that morning before your alarm. The games where you’d see the mirror image of yourself on the opposite sideline and your brain goes “let’s dance” (and that’s the PG version).
That being said, the rare opportunities that our enemies have gotten over the last two decades to dunk on the Patriots have stung extra hard, and after the Buffalo Bills’ thorough barbecue of the New England Patriots in the wild-card round on Saturday, Bills safety Jordan Poyer didn’t hesitate to yell “SCOREBOOOOOOOARD” and then throw some extra sauce on it.
There’s at least 10 The Rock GIFs alone that we in Patriots Nation could respond to that with, so let’s hear the whole quote:
“We gotta hit these guys in the mouth. You see how cocky these guys are? Man, f--- them, man. I’m tired of these (expletive). It’s an end of an era for them tonight. An end of a f------ era. Let’s go! We hit, we strap, and we talk s——. Let’s go!”
....not better. Actually, still kind of infuriating.
Now that we’ve gotten the visceral anger out of the way, here’s the context: that quote is from a Mic’d Up video, and if we’re being real about it, it’s not really THAT different from anything Devin McCourty or even Julian Edelman would say. Especially right before a win-or-go-home playoff game against a division rival.
And “rival” is doing a LOT of heavy lifting in that last sentence. I mean, just look at these division records from the last 10 years of football, and then take into account that this doesn’t include the Bills’ 13-win season last season (the stat runs from the 2010 to the 2019 seasons):
Records the past decade. Pretty interesting. pic.twitter.com/iS52waNgzb— uSTADIUM (@uSTADIUM) January 19, 2022
“Rivalry” at least implies that there’s going to be a competitive game every time both teams take the field, and just cause Buffalo’s been the least-worst AFC East team in that time frame doesn’t mean many of those games in Orchard Park OR Foxboro over the last decade were competitive.
You can take a gander at the head-to-head records here, if you’d like, but anyone who’s watched either of these 2 teams for more than a few quarters since 2010 knows how this annual faceoff has gone. Which is to say, mostly poorly for the Bills while the Patriots set a record for consecutive AFC Championships (and went 3-2 in Super Bowls appearances). Until recently, anyway.
So, at the risk of sounding like “I’m not mad, I’m actually laughing”, you can take issue with Poyer calling the Patriots cocky or saying it’s the end of our era if you’d like. What you can’t take issue with, unless you’re the type of person that plays Madden on “easy”, is that a) these division games are much, MUCH more must-see, organize-your-whole-day-around-it when both teams are actually good, and b) a little extra sauce goes a long way in making the games worth waiting all freakin’ day for.
Just for some examples from the dynasty era; how much more spicy were those late-aughts/early 2010s Jets games when Rex Ryan had them fielding one of the gnarliest defenses in the league?
How about from 2001-2003, when the Patriots going down to Miami felt like an invitation to get thrashed by the Jason Taylor-era Miami Dolphins... until New England finally went punch-for-punch with the Phins in 2003, took ‘em to overtime, and Tyrone Poole out-muscled whoever was supposed to catch that pass and then Brady slung an absolute missile to Troy Brown to ice it?
I mean, watch this rocket from the famously noodle-armed Tom Brady, right?
Sticking with the same season, those ‘03 Patriots that would go on to snag their second Super Bowl ring started the year getting stuffed in a locker by distinguished Pats alumni Lawyer Milloy and Drew Bledsoe, 31-0, only to have the Bills come to our house in Week 17 and deliver an Incredible-Hulk my-anger-makes-me-stronger identical beatdown of 31-0. If you’re like a lot of us, you can still see Lawyer Milloy’s sack dance from that Week 1 embarrassment. It was THAT kind of cathartic victory in Week 17.
We could go on. You get the idea.
Like our veteran Alec Shane said so well earlier this week, nobody north of New York City would trade the last 20 years of domination for anything. It’s almost certainly the greatest run of sustained excellence the sport will ever see. But as someone pointed out to me on Twitter the other day, in that era, pretty much every game short of maybe the Super Bowl, Patriots fans expected to win.
That 2007 mindset never really left; the mindset where it wasn’t just an expectation to win, but that the Patriots would run up the score to the point where the scoreboard would spontaneously combust like the backboard after that Shaq dunk that left it in a thousand pieces on the court floor.
Put another way, like that ‘07 team felt, for most of the last couple decades, wins weren’t a joy that’d carry you through at least Wednesday as much as they were a relief. It was fun, no doubt, but you can’t deny there was kind of a feeling of chasing a time-trial PR in Mario Kart or trying to skunk your roommates on the beer pong table. Now that the division’s got a new top dog, and the Patriots’ rebuild, as it were, seems to have succeeded in extremely short order, all these games are almost college-football-esque edge-of-your-seat life and death. One L to a division team in October could have the Patriots cleaning out their lockers in January instead of punching a ticket to the playoffs and having a puncher’s chance to make some noise in the postseason.
And one last thing: with the NFL doing its absolute best to outlaw and/or penalize anything that could make football more fun, we frankly need all the spice in these games that we can get. Guys are getting flagged for looking in another guy’s general direction after big plays. Players are getting fined for doing objectively awesome stuff like flashing peace signs at each other after that same player flashed a peace sign to them the last time they squared off against each other.
Even though touchdown dances are back, which was long overdue, any kind of trash-talking and “we’ll settle this at WrestleMania!” that can raise the stakes in a division game where it’s a rival we already hate and want to send home wondering “...what just happened?” is a net positive.
Division games for the last however-many years have often seemed like JV vs. Varsity scrimmages, but at their best, a division can give us the instant classics that the late 90s/early 2000s Red Sox-Yankees did. Both teams staring each other in the face and saying “I ain’t scared” and backing it up on the field with some of the most intense games we’ve ever been privileged enough to see.
Is it stressful as hell in the moment and occasionally enough where just seeing someone in a Bills/Jets/Dolphins jersey is enough to raise your blood temperature to 5,000 degrees? Yes. Does that make it even sweeter when you know full well both teams are playoff contenders and you end up on the right side of the scoreboard? Also, 100%, yes.
Those days of dominating the division are gone. Now that the Patriots have proven that the 2020 experiment was a fluke and they’re right back in the mix for double-digit wins, enjoy these rivalry-week games and all the accompanying trash-talk, bad blood, and knowing we’re going to get their best shot for what it is — the way the sport is supposed to be played. If this is our new reality, where the Patriots have to go through Josh Allen and whoever else to punch their ticket to the postseason, then let’s dance.