ORCHARD PARK - Before the start of Sunday's much-anticipated battle between two AFC East unbeatens, legendary quarterback Jim Kelly climbed up onto a platform near the Ralph Wilson Stadium tunnel and began waving a huge Buffalo Bills flag.
The sun-drenched crowd of 68,174 went wild.
It would be the beginning of an unforgettable day at the Ralph.
One neither the jacked-up throng nor Jimbo will soon forget.
Every one, including Kelly, knew what was at stake. The big, bad New England Patriots were in town and had owned the Bills to the tune of 15 consecutive victories. It was reminiscent of the way the hated Miami Dolphins had once lorded over the Bills, winning an NFL-record 20 straight games in the series during the 1970s.
The Fish's streak was finally snapped in the season-opener in 1980. But Miami's dominance against Buffalo didn't truly come to an end until Oct. 25, 1987 when Kelly led the Bills back from a 21-0 deficit to a 34-31 overtime victory in a game that Bill Polian called a turning point in franchise history. Over the next several years, the Bills squished the Fish with regularity as they began their unprecedented run to four consecutive Super Bowls. Ghosts had been exorcized.
Only time will tell if Sunday's riveting 34-31 victory will be regarded similarly.
But it did stop a dubious streak.
And the four-interception performance against the usually flawless Tom Brady does signify another significant step in this franchise's revival.
"It's a great thing for the team, but it's also a great thing for the city,'' a beaming Kelly said outside the jubilant Buffalo locker room after the Bills erased a three-touchdown deficit against a team led by one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game.
"It's great for the fans that they have somebody they can cheer for when it's 21-0 in the other team's favor. You look and say we might have a chance of coming back. In the past, it was how many are we going to lose by?"
Kelly has always been a connoisseur of good quarterbacking. And after watching Ryan Fitzpatrick become the first signal-caller in NFL history to engineer comebacks from 18-point deficits in consecutive weeks, he is a firm believer in Fitz-Magic.
"God bless him, man,'' Kelly gushed. "My hat's off to Fitz for not giving up and sticking with it."
There is something special about the bearded wonder now quarterbacking the Bills. The man known as the Amish Rifle may not have the ideal size or rocket arm or the other skills that make scouts drool. But he has all the intangibles. He is tough, intelligent and mobile. And he makes plays.
Fitz threw for 369 yards and two scores vs. the Patriots. He got hooked up in a shootout with the best signal-caller in the game and held his own. Fitz now has 9 touchdown passes this season, just two shy of Brady, the league-leader. But his most important stat is this: He is 3-0 as a starter.
Oh, and did we mention that he is the starting quarterback for the first-place Buffalo Bills?
His coaches, teammates and Bills fans believe in him the way people believed in Kelly during those glory years of the late 1980s, early '90s.
And the win against Bill Belichick's boys gives Fitz something he didn't previously possess - a signature victory against an elite team - a team that has been the divisional standard-bearer for a decade.
"If we want to get to where we want to be - the playoffs - we've got to go through the Patriots,'' Kelly said. "It reminds me of back in the 1990s when everybody said that about the Bills."
The Bills certainly didn't take the easy road this gorgeous day. Heck, spotting Brady three touchdowns is akin to walking up to the plate against Mariano Rivera with two strikes against you. Game over.
But not on this day. Although they allowed Tom Terrific to pass for 387 yards and four scores, the Bills defenders weren't always gracious hosts. The four picks - including the one Drayton Florence returned 27 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter - were as many as Brady threw all last season. This marked the first time in his Hall-of-Fame caliber career he blew a three-touchdown lead.
"I know how unbelievable Brady is,'' Kelly said. "He (usually) plays a flawless game. But this was one of those games where it wasn't quite there for him. He had some tipped passes and drops. He hit (Chad Ochocinco) in the hands for a touchdown and he dropped the ball. When that happened I said, 'Something's on our side.' "
At his house, a few miles from the Ralph, Kelly has on display game-worn uniforms from some of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time - Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, John Elway.
"Tom's always promised me one and when I saw him before the game, he said I'll give you the one from today,'' Kelly recounted. "I got a good one."
That he did.
Brady graciously handed over the souvenir while chatting with Kelly in the tunnel afterward.
It soon will be on proud display with the roughly 25 other framed jerseys in Jimbo's basement. And it will serve as a reminder not only of one of the best players of all-time, but also of the day when the Bills finally had his number and put an end to an ignominious streak that had hung over them like a black cloud the past eight years.
Award-winning columnist and author Scott Pitoniak has followed the Bills since the mid-1960s and covered them since 1985, writing five books about the team along the way. His 14th book overall, Color Him Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story, will be published by Triumph Books in late October and will be available both in print and digital editions. You can read more by Scott at www.scottpitoniak.com .
SCOTT'S REPORT CARD
COACHING: They struggled early, but made adjustments, leading to a spate of New England turnovers and powerful offensive display from late in the first half on. Chan Gailey is a superb play-caller and a calming influence when things aren't going well. Grade: B-plus
OFFENSE: The Bills overcame some foolish penalties and turnovers to score 34 or more points a third consecutive game. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for a season-high 369 yards, running back Fred Jackson produced 161 yards on just 17 touches and Donald Jones made five receptions for 101 yards. Grade: B-plus
DEFENSE: Brady did pass for 387 yards and four scores - and would have surpassed 400 yards a third straight game had his receivers held onto the ball. But the Bills secondary came up big when it needed to, intercepting him four times. Grade: B
SPECIAL TEAMS: We sometimes take Rian Lindell for granted, but he delivered the game-winning 28-yard field goal and also hit from 42 yards. Brian Moorman boomed five punts for an average of 50.6 yards. C.J. Spiller averaged 10 yards on his two punt returns. Grade: B
OVERALL: Three weeks, three improbable routes to victory. A blow-out win in Kansas City, stirring comeback victories vs. an Oakland team that beat the New York Jets today and a New England team featuring the incomparable Tom Brady. The Bills find themselves unbeaten and in first place with a winnable game coming up against Cincinnati. But they need to be careful and not become cocky because there is much work still to do. As Gailey says: "Now, we'll see how we handle prosperity." Grade: B-plus