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Dan Shaughnessy

At Christmas time, focus is on present

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / December 26, 2010

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BUFFALO — Christmas in Buffalo. If you play for the Patriots, you cannot beat it. You get to hang out with Bill Belichick in the darkest, snowiest corner of America and then you get to play the Bills — a team you have beaten 14 consecutive times.

The late, great Tim Russert explained what the Bills mean to Buffalo in “Big Russ & Me.’’

“They represent our city and the tough times it’s been through,’’ Russert wrote. “When the team loses, the whole town feels it. And when they win big — well, we’re still waiting to find out what that’s like.’’

Russert described his father, a Bills fan, as “the most loyal and optimistic man I have ever known.’’

The Bills, of course, have never won a Super Bowl. They played in four Ultimate Games and lost them all. Now they are cannon fodder for Super Bowl-bound teams like the 12-2 New England Patriots. They have not beaten the Patriots since 2003.

Ralph Wilson Stadium is where the Buffalo roam. It’s where Fred Smerlas shares space alongside O.J. Simpson on the Bills Wall of Fame. It’s where the Patriots once won a game (2001) because an unconscious David Patten was half inbounds, half out of bounds, somehow in contact with the football.

Today Buffalo is the home of Ryan Fitzpatrick, who made his football bones as quarterback of the Harvard Crimson. Fitzpatrick was at Harvard the same time as Mark Zuckerberg, but has no memory of meeting the Facebook billionaire. Fitzpatrick has emerged as a legitimate NFL quarterback, and crazy Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs says Fitzgerald is better than Tom Brady.

Brady will be putting his streaks on the line this afternoon. Tom has thrown at least two touchdown passes and zero interceptions in his last seven games. He has thrown 292 passes since his last pick. He is making a bid for his second MVP award (Michael Vick is Brady’s only competition), but like the rest of the Patriots, he will tell you that today he has one mission only: wrap up the AFC East. The rest of us talk about playoff byes and home field. The Patriots talk only about winning the division.

It’s never a showcase game when you play the Bills. No Sunday Night/Monday Night/Hank Williams “Are You Ready For Some Football?’’ CBS today gives you Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcots. It’s a game that needs no color, so don’t be surprised if they broadcast in black and white from the grayest town in the USA.

When you play the Bills, you envision snow angels, dropkicks, and pinball-machine scoring. Perhaps it’s not going to be as easy as we think. Combing through transcripts of Belichick’s Christmas week press conferences, one can only conclude that the Bills have morphed into the 1985 Chicago Bears. The Bills were 0-8 out of the gate, but have rebounded, winning four of their last six.

The Patriots have played an NFL-record six consecutive games without a turnover. They have nine turnovers in 14 games. The NFL record is 13 turnovers in 16 games.

Take nothing for granted. Let’s not forget last Jan. 3 when the Patriots played that final, meaningless regular-season game at Reliant Stadium in Houston. That was the day that Wes Welker tore his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments while making a cut after catching a pass from Brady. It was a precursor of the Patriots getting slaughtered at home in their first playoff game.

Your Patriots celebrated Christmas yesterday with a walk-through at Gillette Stadium, then flew to Buffalo. No one was spotted mailing postcards from the team’s hotel headquarters here in the Snow Belt.

What’s it like for the players with kids at home?

“My oldest [13] understands,’’ Vince Wilfork said. “My 7-year-old, she doesn’t understand. ‘Why do you have to go to work, Daddy?’

“It is what it is. This is my business. It’s tough, but at the same time, this is my job. I will always put my job first to provide for my family, and that’s exactly what it is.

“We have to do a real good job of staying focused and just eliminating everything else around it, and coming back home on Sunday with a W.

“And we can enjoy Christmas after that — a day later.’’

“I guess our Christmas present is hopefully Sunday afternoon,’’ said Brady.

In 1985, the Celtics played the Knicks in Madison Square Garden on Christmas Day. Kevin McHale did not go to New York the night before the game. He stayed home, unwrapped gifts with his wife and kids Christmas morning, then took the shuttle to New York in time for the 3:30 game. McHale was happy to pay the fine.

The Celtics lost the game but went on to win the NBA championship.

The Patriots don’t do it that way. Except for the part about the championship.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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