Armed with a salary cap and draft order designed to promote parity so that games are close and you’ll watch until the end to spike TV ratings, the NFL doesn’t bring many matchups that can be hyped with the loudest of all sports marketing three-word combinations: Battle of Unbeatens.
So when one presents itself, disregard the calendar and buy into the hype.
Too early to sell Sunday’s 1 p.m. kickoff between the visiting Patriots and the Bills as Battle of Unbeatens? Oh, really? The winner will emerge as one of two 4-0 teams in the AFC, the other being the Chiefs, provided the Lions, five-point underdogs, don’t upset them.
The Bills haven’t played a quality opponent yet. The Jets, Giants and Bengals are a combined 1-8. OK, but the Steelers, Dolphins and Jets, the three lopsided losers to the Patriots, are a combined 0-9.
The Bills have relied on fourth-quarter drives to stay unbeaten, the Patriots on domination. The Pats’ defense has allowed three points in three games, the others coming on a muffed punt and pick six. So it makes sense that there is a favorite in this Battle of Unbeatens, the Patriots by a touchdown.
It’s not quite Tom Brady’s 8-0 Patriots vs. Peyton Manning’s 7-0 Colts on Nov. 5, 2007, when Brady threw three fourth-quarter touchdowns in a four-minute span to deliver a 24-20 victory in Indianapolis to rally the Pats back from a 10-point deficit.
It’s not USC-Texas for the national title in 2006. It’s not 1966 Michigan State-Notre Dame, when Fighting Irish coach Ara Parseghian played for a 10-10 tie and received piles of neckties as Christmas presents.
It’s not Elvin Hayes vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when he was Lew Alcindor, Jan. 20, 1968 in the Astrodome.
It’s not Ali-Frazier I in Madison Square Garden, March 8, 1971, or Nebraska-Oklahoma later that year.
But the standard for billing a contest “Battle of Unbeatens” need not meet such a lofty standard.
Sunday’s matchup in Orchard Park lies somewhere on the continuum between Larry Holmes (44-0) vs. Marvis Frazier (10-0), Nov. 25, 1983 in Las Vegas, and Chad Pennington’s 5-0 Jets vs. Brady’s 5-0 Pats on Oct. 24, 2004 won by Brady, 13-7 at Gillette Stadium.
The game has an excellent chance to be more competitive than Holmes-Frazier. Little Smoke lasted 2:27 longer against the merciful Holmes than he did three years later when he had the courage to step into the ring with Mike Tyson in Glens Falls, N.Y. That one lasted 30 seconds.
You take your hype-worthy matchups where you can get them and for the Patriots the first arrives in Week 4. These aren’t your older brother’s Bills. If you don’t believe me, just listen to what Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had to say during a conference call about the Bills’ defense, ranked second in the AFC to the Patriots in scoring and total yards.
“This is certainly one of the best defenses in the league and it has been for a while,” McDaniels said. “They have a lot of players back, first of all. I think coach (defensive coordinator Leslie) Frazier and (head) coach (Sean) McDermott, they do an incredible job of coaching this unit. They’re on the same page, very rarely out of position. They communicate well. They defend the deep part of the field and very rarely give up big plays, which forces you to have to drive the ball eight, 10, 12 plays without making an error or making a play to score.”
McDaniels was just getting warmed up.
“They take the ball away as well as any team in the league and that was the same thing last year,” he said. “Whether it was opportunistic coverage players who have good hands and intercept the ball, or they do a good job of running and chasing the ball and stripping and punching at it when you’re running with it.”
That’s not all. He added that the Bills’ defense is “stingy in the red zone” and “very good on third down,” and “challenges you for every yard,” and plays mistake-free football.
“And it’s on the road in a place that’s as hard a place to play as we play in, with the noise and the atmosphere,” McDaniels said. “I’m sure it will be incredible on Sunday. We’re going to be dealing with that.”
Brady will put his 29-3 record vs. the Bills on the line without the aid of blocking/short-yardage back James Develin, out until at least late November with a neck injury. Plus, Rob Gronkowski is a CBD pitch man, Antonio Brown a distant memory and Julian Edelman’s status for Sunday is in limbo because of a rib injury he sustained in the trashing of the Jets.
Bills second-year quarterback Josh Allen could be the one who someday knocks Brady off his perch as the QB with the most victories in Orchard Park, N.Y., since 2001. Brady is 15-2 there, Allen 5-2. Brady ranks fourth in wins in the place now known as New Era Field, ranking behind Jim Kelly (58), Joe Ferguson (43) and Drew Bledsoe (18).
Allen’s a bit of a wild card in that he has a cannon for an arm and isn’t afraid to take off and run.
Listen closely and you will hear the drum beat for this Battle of Unbeatens grow louder as the week progresses.