ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- She is the hugely popular owner of the Buffalo Bills, an effervescent woman who, along with her husband, is hailed by many Western New Yorkers for keeping the local NFL franchise from relocating and revitalizing a moribund downtown. So when Kim Pegula came walking through the south end zone tunnel at New Era Field an hour before her team's AFC East showdown with the New England Patriots on Sunday, the last thing she expected to hear was a hearty round of boos.
Yet as Pegula smiled at the Bills fans lining the top of the tunnel and neared the playing field, she was startled by a loud roar of disapproval -- one she would later realize was provoked by the fast-approaching presence of a highly focused future first-ballot Hall of Famer. So locked in was Tom Brady, a steely-eyed man with literal tunnel vision, that the Patriots quarterback came perilously close to running over the petite Pegula, who was whisked out of harm's way in the nick of time by an intrepid employee.
That was the good news. Unfortunately for Pegula, she would spend the bulk of her day watching Brady sadistically steamroll her football team.
As ruthless as NWA back in the heyday, Brady showed once again Sunday that somehow, at the age of 39, he is squarely in his prime. He completed 22 of 33 passes for 315 yards and four touchdowns, including 53-yard scoring hookups with All-Pro tight end and Buffalo-area native Rob Gronkowski and ex-Bills slot receiver Chris Hogan, adding further sting to a flawless effort that left 70,442 fans and 46 frustrated players shaking their heads in disgust.
"He's a mother [expletive]," Bills linebacker Brandon Spikes said of his former Patriots teammate, nodding his head respectfully, after the Patriots' 41-25 victory was secured. "In a situation like this, you know he's coming with his 'A' game, and I wouldn't expect anything less from him. And trust me, dealing with his 'A' game is not easy."
The Bills (4-4) certainly aren't the only team confronting Brady's cold-blooded wrath in 2016. Forced to sit out the first four games when he gave up his prolonged fight against a league-imposed suspension (stemming from his role in the deflated-ball saga, which dated back to the 2014 AFC Championship Game), Brady has beasted everyone in his path. On Sunday, he became the third player in NFL history to throw for 12 or more touchdowns and no interceptions in his first four games of the season, and at midseason, he looks like the league's leading MVP candidate, despite having only played in half of the Pats' games.
New England (7-1) managed to win the first three of those games without Brady, as backups Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett played commendably and Bill Belichick and his staff showed their brainiac chops. The magic ran out in a Week 4 home meeting with the Bills, who mashed their way to a 16-0 triumph, giving them high hopes heading into Sunday's rematch.
Then again, everyone in Buffalo comprehended the clear and present danger that winter was coming: Brady's 25-3 career record against the Bills being the most obvious clue.
"This is how I think of Tom Brady," Bills owner Terry Pegula said after he and Kim finished watching Saturday's walkthrough at the fieldhouse next to New Era Field. "He's like McDonald's. Every time I go there, I always get the same thing -- because it works, and why would you get anything different? That's Brady. He's gonna come out and run the same, simple offense, and slide in the pocket and get rid of the ball quickly and throw it underneath to all those different receivers, and unless you can do something to stop him, he'll carve you to pieces."
Make that a 26-3 career record -- and a medium fries, to go.
On Sunday, Brady executed offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' game plan to perfection, putting his many talents on display in the process. The Bills were essentially helpless in the face of his preternatural accuracy, peerless vision and sixth-sense-driven pocket presence. He even ran 15 yards on third-and-5 to extend a third-quarter touchdown drive.
"I don't know how that happened," said Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, who returned to make an impact after missing the season's first seven games because of a drug-test-related suspension and a hamstring injury.
Worst of all for the Bills, Brady exploited every assignment error, miscommunication and flawed alignment that unfolded in front of him -- and there were many. Throw in Buffalo's penchant for penalties (12 for 84 yards on Sunday), and the mistake-prone home team didn't stand a chance.
"It's pretty basic," Dareus said. "He knows his offense, and he knows the holes, so it's easy for him. We got after him today; we were hitting him. But he was ruthless, and I've been seeing that a long time."
If one sequence from Sunday's game encapsulated Brady's mastery of the Bills -- and sucked the expectant energy out of New Era Field -- it was a pair of snaps he took late in the first quarter, with the Pats holding a 7-3 lead. On third-and-8 from the Bills' 48, Brady rolled to his left to avoid pressure and, at the last second, threw back across his body to wideout Julian Edelman, who caught the ball at the 15 and was tackled one yard from the end zone. However, the play was nullified because Patriots tackle Marcus Cannon was penalized for blocking downfield, setting up a third-and-13 that had Bills fans yelling their throats out.
Naturally, Brady went for the throat: After looking to his right, he pivoted to the backside and laid out a perfect touch pass for Hogan, who had two steps on cornerback Stephon Gilmore and cruised in for the 53-yard touchdown. Gilmore seemed to be expecting help from safety Jonathan Meeks, and the two defensive backs engaged in a heated conversation that would not be the only one of its kind on Sunday.
"That's how they thrive, off of blown coverage," Spikes said. "You give [Brady] a window, and he's gonna take it -- that's why he's great. Look, we know not everything's gonna be perfect. But when it does go south, we've got to be able to keep our composure and get together, and not be throwing fits. Guys get frustrated, but you've got to keep it together."
Said Gilmore: "He's a great quarterback. He did his job, but we gave him a lot. If we do make a mistake, he'll take advantage. So you can't give him anything. We gave him a lot, and the refs gave him a lot. ...
"He's trying to embarrass you. That's what he wants to do. But we gave him a lot."
That's one way of looking at it; the other is that Brady -- one of the best ever to have spun it, and one of the fiercest competitors the sport has ever known -- takes what Brady wants, at least most of the time, and especially in Buffalo.
"He's the best," Bills general manager Doug Whaley said afterward. "That's who he is. To be the best, you've got to beat the best, and we're not there yet. He's got a purpose, and a purpose-driven Tom Brady's not good for the NFL. You have to play them perfectly, and add to that the fact that you're playing Brady -- that you've got to be perfect, because he's gonna be perfect -- and it's too much."
Said Dareus: "Oh my God -- they get a penalty (against Cannon) and he comes right back and says, 'Alright, take that'? He's pretty nasty."
Brady's nastiness shows no signs of subsiding -- and his superpowers have now become the stuff of legend.
"At one point in the third quarter, he asked the ref to reset the (play) clock," Dareus said. "Like, it was already running, and he wanted it reset to [40 seconds]. The ref just looked back and said, 'Yeah, I got you.' (Our) guys started flipping out! I've never seen any other quarterback do that, but I've been seeing Brady do that for a long time. We were all just talking about it in the shower -- like, what the hell? Yeah, man -- welcome to Buffalo."
On Sunday, having been deprived of his initial opportunity to face the opponent he most relentlessly torments, Brady seemed hell-bent on trying to produce two games' worth of points in one outing. Midway through the third quarter, not long after Brady's 12-yard pass to Edelman had put her team in a 31-10 hole, Kim Pegula -- watching from her suite on the west side of the stadium -- took a sip of her sugar-free Red Bull and asked, "How long do you think Brady's gonna keep playing?"
She did not love my answer.
"Well," I replied, "he's 39, and he says he wants to keep playing till he's 45, or maybe longer."
"Seriously?" Pegula asked.
Father Time, of course, is undefeated. But in the meantime, Brady's ruthless ownership of the AFC East -- and so much more of the NFL landscape -- shows no signs of subsiding. If you needed any further proof that he is in the heads of his Western New York-based rivals, we present coach Rex Ryan's press conference as Exhibit A: In addition to conceding the division title to the Patriots, the noted defensive guru admitted that the blown assignments on defense might have been a product of a scheme geared to try to give Brady more looks than would normally be thrown at an opposing quarterback.
It's not an ideal state of affairs for Ryan or the Bills or the hyper-competitive Pegulas, but, on Sunday, their loss was the football world's gain. Brady is not only a living legend, but he's one of the good guys -- the fallout from the deflated-ball scandal be damned -- and it's a treat to watch him work.
As he left the locker room and retreated through the other end of the south end-zone tunnel, this time striding slowly and alertly, Brady was the epitome of warmth and class -- stopping to greet opposing players and their family members, pausing patiently for photos with children, looking well-wishers in the eye and making them feel like he had all the time in the world to exchange pleasantries.
A few feet away, a uniformed police officer looked on in awestruck appreciation.
"I've seen this scene so many times," he said. "People want to hate this guy, and they spend all game screaming for his head, and then he walks out of this stadium -- every time -- and acts like a total pro. You can tell he's such a great guy, and he makes everyone around him feel special. You can root against him, but you have to respect him."
As he prepared to leave the stadium for a quiet dinner with friends, Dareus expressed a similar sentiment.
"I love playing against him," the defeated defensive tackle said. "I like his leadership, and I like the way he goes about it. For a while, you hate him, and then you meet him -- and he's like, 'Hey, how you doing?' and you realize he's a good dude, and you wish you hadn't met him.
"One time I sacked him, and as he was laying on the ground, he said, 'Man, good play.' How can you hate that guy? Off the field, he's really a nice guy."
On it, he's as nasty as he wants to be. And when he's charging through the tunnel of the team he loves to torment?
It's best to stay out of Brady's way.