Almost to his own detriment at times, Rex Ryan is unapologetic for how he wants his team to play: physical, mean, aggressive. In short, he wants Buffalo to be a bully.
That doesn’t always work when the opposition can punch back, but Ryan and the Bills clearly saw an opportunity in Week 4, in Tom Brady’s final game out of the Patriots lineup. As soon as Buffalo closed out its Week 3 upset of Arizona, Ryan turned his focus to the reigning kings of the AFC East.
“I don’t care who plays quarterback,” Ryan said last Sunday. “Steve Grogan can play quarterback. If [Bill] Belichick’s playing quarterback, we’re coming after him, I promise you that.”
It wasn’t Grogan or Belichick under center, but rather rookie Jacoby Brissett who felt the full force of Buffalo’s attack Sunday. The Bills controlled the line on both sides of the ball and clobbered Brissett numerous times, en route to an emphatic 16-0 win that might reestablish them as an AFC playoff threat—if not a challenger to the Patriots in the East. Tom Brady's return and the Patriots' 3-1 record without him still make them the team to beat, but the Bills at least kept the conversation open for another week or two.
Already, the Bills are about as far removed from their Week 2 selves as possible.
On Sept. 15, the Bills fell to 0-2 with a miserable Thursday night effort against the Jets, allowing 493 yards. They fired their offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, shortly thereafter, firmly placing Ryan under the microscope for the remainder of the season. With a difficult scheduling awaiting, including the back-to-back against Arizona and New England, Ryan was running short on time to get his house in order.
Be it the Roman firing or sheer desperation, though, the Bills have spent the two weeks since looking like world-beaters. They got the job done Sunday in Foxborough by outmuscling the Patriots, who responded in turn with an uncharacteristic series of mistakes.
Buffalo actually fired the opening salvo before the game even started. As Brissett and Malcolm Mitchell jogged off the field following warm-ups, Buffalo’s Robert Blanton initiated a scuffle that also featured his teammate Aaron Williams twice shoving the head of Patriots assistant Chad O’Shea.
Patriots president Jonathan Kraft thought the whole incident reeked of Ryan’s influence, saying in an interview with 98.5 The Sports Hub: “I think if you are less-than-disciplined in your personal approach, your team will take on the attitude of the coach. I think for different people, different strategies work. I guess you’d have to ask Rex but my guess is that Rex probably loves that. That’s why Rex is Rex and that’s why Bill is Bill.”
Whether that all had a lasting effect on Sunday’s game is impossible to say, but it is safe to assume Blanton doesn’t step to Brady in similar circumstances. Perhaps the Bills thought they could rattle Brissett.
Eventually they did. The rookie QB coughed up a critical fumble in the first half when was popped by linebacker Zach Brown. In the third quarter, he stayed down for an extra beat after Lorenzo Alexander nailed him as he slid following a scramble attempt. (Given the attention paid to QB safety and concussions, by the way, it was startling that the refs did not pull Brissett for evaluation following the Alexander hit.)
There were all sorts of issues for the Patriots beyond their QB, on both offense and defense, but Brissett on Sunday looked far more like a rookie than he did in carving up the Texans last week.
A pair of critical penalties, plus a missed field goal kept the Patriots from making Sunday’s game competitive. Brissett’s first pass attempt of the day—on the game’s first snap, no less—actually went for 90 yards to Julian Edelman, only for the play to be called back by an offensive pass interference call against Chris Hogan. Later, a holding flag cost New England a first-and-goal attempt; Brissett’s fumble came one play later.
Meltdowns like the Patriots had Sunday are rare, which is all the more reason that Buffalo deserves credit. New England may have been looking ahead to tomorrow, when Brady can return from his suspension, but the Bills took full advantage.
After that quick strike to Edelman early, they put the clamps on Brissett and the Patriots’s offense for the remainder of the game. Brissett attempted all of three passes in the first half and finished 17 of 27 for 205 yards, much of that damage coming late with Buffalo in control.
This was a beatdown by Buffalo, aided by New England’s self-inflicted wounds. The end result marked the first time the Patriots had been shut out at home since the 1993 season (Miami, 6-0).
More importantly for the Bills, it could represent a real, even sustainable turn in the right direction. The situation was as dire it could be two weeks ago, for coach and team. But all of a sudden, Ryan’s boys have life, and they’re feeding off his style.