ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – In the big stadium outside, fans would not leave. An empty field stretched before them and they howled into the afternoon refusing to let go of a victory that couldn't possibly have happened; one they must have wondered would ever come.
The last time the Buffalo Bills had beaten the New England Patriots was Sept. 7, 2003. Back then their current quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes), was a junior at Harvard and Facebook had yet to hit the university's computers. In the seasons that followed, the Bills found every way possible to lose to New England – 15 defeats in all. Then when it came, when again the Bills had stared up a mountain that seemed impossible to climb, they exploded into a delirium they hadn't seen here in ages.
"I didn't know those guys," Fitzpatrick said as he rode an elevator from the Bills locker room to the postgame party following the 34-31 victory over New England on Sunday. He was talking about the Facebook inventors whom he said his wife actually knew a bit, but he might as well have been talking about Tom Brady(notes) and the Patriots, who played in nearby Foxborough.
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Now here he was about to celebrate a victory over Brady, who was still standing downstairs unable to find the team bus and at a loss to explain four interceptions.
"Never in a million years did I expect this back then," Fitzpatrick said, shaking his head. Yes, he watched Brady a lot in his Harvard days. Only 30 miles separated them but they lived in different worlds. Brady was a huge star in the middle of the Patriots' Super Bowl runs. Fitzpatrick was in the Ivy League with hardly a thought he would someday end up in an NFL stadium leading a final drive against New England on national TV.
"When I take a step back and I think about that time it's pretty cool, especially being there in Boston," he said. "I didn't go to their games but I watched them a lot."
Then he shook his head again. He wore a faded T-shirt and had a beard on his chin and a cut above his nose. Brady, down below, pulled a rolling bag and wore an expensive gray sweater. They couldn't have seemed more unalike. But then Fitzpatrick is much like most of these Bills: forgotten, unwanted and cast away, and because of this, they are hungry.
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Bills general manager Buddy Nix has noticed. He didn't intend to build a roster of players with chips on their shoulders; he and his scouts were simply trying to find the best talent they could get who would fit what they want to do. But in piecing together the team that leads the AFC East with a 3-0 record, he realized they had constructed one where the players were feisty and had something to prove. He smiled as he pondered this. In football it is never bad to have players who burn for something more.
So it shouldn't be too hard to understand how the Bills can fight from giant deficits like 21-3 against Oakland in Week 2 or 21-0 against the Patriots, and still come back to win. When you're starting from nothing and nobody thinks you're any good, the will to prove everyone wrong takes over.
"It's powerful," said Fitzpatrick, who threw for a season-high 369 yards with two touchdown passes against the Pats. "Everyone's been making a big deal about us not having any big names and we are the no-names. In the outside world we're nothing. Nobody believes in us. We feed off of that."
"Oh yeah, I got to represent," he said.
Jackson had 161 total yards on Sunday, including the 38-yard run after catching a short Fitzpatrick pass to set up the game-winning field goal. This victory, this start has had as much to do with him as anyone else on the Bills. And he laughed slightly as he later rode an elevator to the same party. "We're what we call The Misfits," he said. "We're just a bunch of undrafted guys and seventh-round picks. We want to show we can play against anybody – the Patriots, whatever."
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Of course there is a limit to how far the anger at being overlooked can go. Eventually Fitzpatrick and Jackson and the other Bills players won't be unknowns. Their metamorphosis is probably already happening. Something more will have to carry them: a poise, a confidence.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was how controlled the Bills eventually came to play. They made mistakes early but then they rattled Brady, tore apart the Patriots defense and left New England coach Bill Belichick simmering on the sideline. His postgame media session was a series of grunts and growls and one-sentence answers.
But the Buffalo players say there is a new confidence on their team. They felt it last year when Chan Gailey came in as the coach and laid down a foundation where the most critical thing was to not lose composure. They came close in several games and lost again and again. Yet in those losses came a certainty that they were only inches away from being good. And suddenly in three magical weeks they have proven it to everyone.
Even in the halftime locker room down 21-10 there weren't shouts about making changes. Nobody said to do anything different. Just don't make mistakes. Everything else will work.
And then it did.
Afterward, Bills center Eric Wood(notes) stood in an empty locker room and talked about Fitzpatrick the quarterback they have all come to trust. While other quarterbacks celebrate touchdowns Wood loves how Fitzpatrick walks quietly down the field. Behind the scenes the players have come to know Fitzpatrick as a man with a cutting wit, someone who can have them all on the floor laughing. In the public, he is as unassuming as any of them.
The other day, Fitzpatrick went on "The Jim Rome Show" and Wood expected something fantastic, two churning minds and sharp tongues exchanging banter. Instead he thought the appearance was dull. The quarterback gave nothing. No one-liners. No shots. No barbs. Nothing.
His statement would come later. And this time he could be sure Tom Brady would be watching.
- New England