Philadelphia, PA – Break out those old Seinfeld episodes on VHS and Ace of Base CD's, everybody. It's beginning to feel like 1993 again.
That's the last time the Buffalo Bills ruled the roost in the AFC, with the long-suffering franchise making the final of four consecutive ill-fated Super Bowl appearances that year before undergoing a slow and sad decline into NFL oblivion. And though the calendar may still read September and this 2011 season is only three weeks old, an unexpectedly explosive offense and never-say-die attitude has finally restored the Bills to relevance once again.
Buffalo's 2-0 start had been predominantly viewed upon with a hint of skepticism from the football world. After all, it's only natural to be cynical about a team that has produced just one winning record over the past 11 seasons, especially when one of those two early triumphs came against the disheveled Kansas City Chiefs and the other was a skin-of-their-teeth comeback at home over an Oakland outfit traveling across the country on a short week.
That public perception changed in an instant on Sunday, however, when the Bills orchestrated the most shocking and impressive result of this young campaign to date. Down 21 points early on to the powerful New England Patriots, Buffalo mounted a furious second-half rally to deliver a seemingly-impossible 34-31 win over the presumed conference front-runners that at long last brought the credibility those remaining doubters had been stubbornly refusing to grant.
Overcoming a 21-3 deficit to a Raiders squad languishing in a prolonged playoff drought of its own is one thing; turning the tables on a perennial double-digit winner that had run roughshod over its first two opponents of 2011 earns you a whole other level of respect, especially when said team has strung together 15 straight victories in the series.
Prior to Sunday's upset, Buffalo hadn't knocked off the Patriots since a 31-0 rout at Ralph Wilson Stadium in the 2003 season opener.
"Best [win] of my career," said Bills linebacker Chris Kelsay, a ninth-year veteran and one of only four remaining members on the Buffalo roster who participated in that 2003 victory. "I've played these guys 17 times and only won one until [Sunday], so it's awesome. Anytime you can beat a great team like that and a great coaching staff like that you're going to enjoy it."
It's not just that the Bills outscored a New England juggernaut that had amassed an incredible 1,126 total yards in season-opening decisions over Miami and San Diego, it's how they did it which really raises eyebrows. Buffalo appeared dead and buried after the Patriots put up three touchdowns on their first four possessions to take a 21-0 lead midway through the second quarter, but rendered the league's most prolific offense into a mistake-prone mess thereafter to limit the damage and enable clutch quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to once again work his magic.
The Bills intercepted the great Tom Brady four times over the remainder of the game, including one which cornerback Drayton Florence returned for a fourth- quarter touchdown for a 31-24 Buffalo lead. Two other picks were converted into touchdowns by Fitzpatrick and the offense, while another killed a Pats' drive deep in enemy territory.
Brady had been intercepted four times total over the course of his magnificent 2010 season in which the usually-flawless quarterback was named the first unanimous MVP in league history.
The far less-distinguished Fitzpatrick, once discarded by both St. Louis and Cincinnati before being the latest successful reclamation project of Buffalo head coach and longtime NFL offensive architect Chan Gailey, and his fellow no- name teammates achieved a notable first as well with Sunday's resounding verdict. According to STATS LLC, no team since 1950 had come back to win after trailing by 18 points or more in back-to-back weeks before the determined Bills turned the trick.
"You've got to give them their due in the character department," noted Gailey of his charges.
In an unpredictable opening month to a so-far thrilling NFL season where one of last week's heroes of note (Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Jesse Holley) earned his job with the aid of a reality television show, the collection of castoffs and overlooked gems that comprise a Buffalo offense that's scored a league-best 113 points in three games makes for another equally unlikely feel-good story.
Fitzpatrick was a seventh-round draft choice of the Rams who paid his dues as a backup for five seasons with three different teams before finally establishing himself as a proven and capable field general.
Running back Fred Jackson, who presently ranks second in the league in yards from scrimmage following Sunday's 161-yard, one-touchdown outburst, was an undrafted find out of Division III Coe College four years ago.
Top receiver Stevie Johnson was the 224th overall pick of the 2008 draft, while journeyman tight end Scott Chandler -- who caught his fourth touchdown pass in three games during Sunday's wild win -- had been bouncing around practice squads and active rosters of several teams since breaking into the league in 2007 before getting an opportunity in Gailey's offense.
Gailey has molded all those spare parts into a strong overall assemblage that's become arguably the Bills' most dangerous offense since the groundbreaking "K- Gun" era days of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and James Lofton. Buffalo's current model ranks third in the NFL in total yards (431.0 ypg) and first downs (27.0/gm.) and stands fourth overall in rushing (155.0 ypg) through the first three weeks.
Whether Buffalo's unconventional formula can lead to further success remains to be seen. Remember that the Bills put forth a prior perceived breakthrough in 2008 that turned out to be a mirage, with the team winning its first four contests before fading to a 7-9 finish.
That year's group wasn't able to upend its most frustrating nemesis over the past decade, however, nor did it win a single time against AFC East competition. The 2011 Bills appear to have more staying power, not to mention better stability at the quarterback position following Gailey's decision to replace the fragile Trent Edwards with the more confident Fitzpatrick at this time a year ago.
Buffalo has gone 7-9 in games Fitzpatrick has started since the switch, with three of those losses coming in overtime to eventual 2010 playoff participants.
While that doesn't exactly signal a complete arrival, it's certainly an indicator that the Bills are headed on an upswing following years of being stuck in neutral.