- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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"The Bills think that they're good, but they don't really know whether or not that they're good," said the former New York Jets and Cleveland Browns head coach. "And this is going to be the litmus test, because New England is good. So [Buffalo] is trying to figure out where they fit in the AFC East, and this is when they find out."
Buffalo is in search of contender status. League-wide respect is just four quarters away Sunday when the Bills host the Patriots at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The Bills are a nice, early season story. They are the league's biggest surprise at 2-0.
But nationally, few outside Buffalo's locker room predict the Bills to be a legitimate threat to the big boys. Buffalo is ranked No. 16 in ESPN.com's Power Rankings, behind nine teams with worse records. The Bills are more than a touchdown underdog at home against the Patriots (2-0). The Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady have looked like a machine in their first two games and are a viable Super Bowl contender.
New England has what Buffalo wants. And to be a contender, you have to beat a contender.
The Patriots swept the Bills in two games last season by a combined score of 72-33. Buffalo has lost 15 straight to New England. The Bills haven't beaten the Patriots since the "Lawyer Milloy Game" on Sept. 7, 2003.
Buffalo has to overcome a lot of bad history this weekend.
"This year we're all about changing the attitude. We have to go into this knowing that we're capable of winning this ballgame," Bills receiver David Nelson told the AFC East blog. "We have to know that we have the capability on offense to move the ball, and on defense to stop them and on special teams to make big plays. That's all we can control. We can't control what other people think about us."
Much of Buffalo's success will come down to starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Sunday's matchup is expected to be high scoring. Fitzpatrick will try to keep up with Brady, who is on a torrid pace.
New England's offense is getting most of the hype. But Buffalo's offense is leading the NFL in scoring with 79 points the first two games. The Patriots are third with 73 points, behind the Bills and Detroit Lions (75).
Buffalo's spread offense is giving opponents headaches. But Fitzpatrick has had issues with New England's defense in the past. Fitzpatrick has thrown for 676 yards, three touchdowns and six interceptions in three career starts against the Patriots. He's 0-3 in those meetings.
"I think that in general they always present a tough challenge for us," Fitzpatrick admitted this week. "Obviously the streak and the number of games we’ve played without beating them, they're tough."
Do the surprising Bills have staying power? Win or lose, that will be the biggest question following Sunday's game.
The AFC East is stacked with three undefeated teams. A strong case can be made that it is the best division in football after two weeks. The Bills have the tough task of competing with the Patriots and New York Jets (2-0) four times this season.
Buffalo has a shot if the offense continues to play well. The Bills have tremendous balance through the air and on the ground. Buffalo running back Fred Jackson leads the NFL in rushing with 229 yards after two weeks. The defense also has improved from last season. It was dominant in Week 1 against Kansas City but gave up a lot of big plays in last week's 38-35 win against the Oakland Raiders.
The Bills are gradually turning their franchise around. Buffalo is 6-4 in its past 10 games under second-year head coach Chan Gailey.
"I think that our guys understand hard work. They understand about going out and getting better each day," Gailey said. "They have learned the systems better. We picked up some good players that have helped us on both sides of the ball, and when everybody gets closer to the same page, you give yourself a chance to be more successful."
The Bills also are the kind of team fans can gravitate to. They're underdogs with virtually no star power. Many of Buffalo's best players were outcasts, people who were let go or overlooked by other teams.
Fitzpatrick, 28, is a journeyman quarterback who was a backup with the St. Louis Rams and Cincinnati Bengals. Jackson, 30, spent time in NFL Europe. No. 1 receiver Stevie Johnson was drafted by Buffalo in the seventh round. Nelson, who caught the game-winning reception against Oakland, wasn't drafted.
On defense, Buffalo added veteran linebackers Nick Barnett and Shawne Merriman because their previous teams felt they were too injury-prone. Even Gailey has baggage; he was fired abruptly by the Dallas Cowboys as head coach and by the Kansas City Chiefs as offensive coordinator.
"I think we all have a common bond. We're all understanding each other," Nelson said. "We know we have been through so much. I think it motivates us and gives us that special bond to work hard for each other. We want to be there for each other and make this special."
Fitzpatrick agrees that being overlooked as individuals helped Buffalo come together as a team.
"We're a team full of guys looking to make a name for themselves. We're looking to make a name for our team," Fitzpatrick said. "Although most of us are unheralded, nobody really knows us, we think that we're pretty good and we think that we've got a lot of talent on our roster."
Upsetting New England would give the Bills the respect they are looking for. Most trends point to the Patriots. But this season's Bills have defied the odds.