Tony Dungy felt a blast from the past this week when he sat down to prep for his role as an analyst on NBC Sunday Night Football.
The Kansas City Chiefs, with back-to-back conference titles, are the gatekeepers in the AFC. The Buffalo Bills are looking to encroach on that territory after two head-to-head losses last season, once in primetime during Week 6 and again in the AFC Championship.
Dungy has seen this before. His Indianapolis Colts lost four times to the New England Patriots in 2003 and 2004, including twice in the playoffs, before defeating them en route to a victory in Super Bowl XLI.
"You understood, you're going to have to beat those guys," the Hall-of-Fame coach said Thursday.
The scenario transcends football. Michael Jordan had to overcome the Bad Boys before he began his stranglehold on the NBA. The Stanley Cup eluded Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals until they won a playoff series against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins – on their fourth try.
For Indianapolis, the path to Lombardi went through New England. Peyton Manning was named MVP in 2003 and 2004, leading the Colts to consecutive 12-4 records. Tom Brady and the Patriots had established themselves as the AFC's foremost superpower, having won their first title in 2001.
New England established head-to-head superiority with a 38-34 win in Indianapolis during Week 9 of 2003. The tiebreaker proved to be significant come January, placing the AFC Championship in Foxborough. New England won, 38-34, and went on to win the Super Bowl.
The script was the same in 2004. New England beat Indianapolis after hanging its banner during Week 1, earned home field in the playoffs and ended the Colts' season during the divisional round before going on to claim a third championship in four seasons.
After every defeat, Dungy walked away feeling his team had sabotaged itself with self-inflicted wounds. His advice to the Bills would be the same as his message then.
"You just realize, there's not that much difference," Dungy said. "You don't have to elevate your game to another level. You don't have to do something special. The conclusion we came to was, we just had to play our game and be able to do the things we could do in the big moments."
Bills players who spoke throughout the week referred to the matchup as simply being one of 17 on the schedule, an even-keel, small-picture mindset that trickles down from head coach Sean McDermott. Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs even used the same line to describe the meeting.
It's the most important game, they said, because it's the next game.
"They're kind of the gold standard of what you would want to be as an AFC team," Allen said of the Chiefs. "Being to the AFC Championship the last three years and competing for Super Bowls is what they've been doing, so that's what every team wants to be.
"Until somebody knocks them off in the playoffs, that won't change. But again, this is Week 5. It's the biggest game on our schedule, like I said earlier, because it's the next one. That's how we're approaching this game."
But while winning in the playoffs is the ultimate goal, a Week 5 victory could go a long way to that end. Dungy's Colts finally beat the Patriots during Week 9 of the 2005 regular season, a 40-21 win in Foxborough. The two teams did not meet that year in the postseason – Pittsburgh defeated Indianapolis during the divisional round – but Dungy believed the meeting had a lasting effect.
"From that point on, we knew we were as good as anybody in football," Dungy said. "We always thought we were. We knew we were. But everybody was saying, 'You can't beat the Patriots. You're never going to the Super Bowl until you can beat these guys.
"Once we beat them – it wasn't that our path was clear or we got cocky. But we knew we were as good as any team in football."
The Colts went on to beat the Patriots again in Foxborough during Week 9 in 2006. This time, the two teams met for the AFC Championship in Indianapolis. The Colts won, 38-34, on a touchdown with one minute remaining.
This raises another consideration for Sunday: The result could be the factor that determines whether a potential playoff rematch is played in Buffalo or Kansas City.
Much in the same way that Bills general manager Brandon Beane spent this past offseason investing in his team's pass rush after watching Tampa Bay pressure Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes relentlessly during last year's Super Bowl, Bill Polian admits he built his Colts teams with the Patriots in mind. Securing home field advantage was part of that equation.
"I would say on a scale of one to 10, in terms of how we built our team, how to beat New England was probably a five," Polian, the Hall-of-Fame architect of the 1990s Bills and 2000s Colts, said. "We didn't fixate on it. We weren't obsessed with it. But we knew that, very likely, if you're going to have homefield advantage, you're going to have to beat New England."
Allen referred to Arrowhead Stadium as one of the NFL's most hostile environments, a place where crowd noise can complicate communication on offense. It's the same way Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger described the Buffalo crowd after visiting Orchard Park in Week 1.
"It helps the defense so much," Dungy said. "We went in [New England] with some really, really good offenses. But when you're dealing with the noise and you're dealing with the energy and the emotion, it really helps the home team defense."
Yes, the game is one of 17 on the schedule. Both teams will continue to evolve over the 13 weeks to follow. A playoff rematch between the Bills and the Chiefs is far from a guarantee in an AFC that features six teams tied at 3-1.
But if the teams do meet again for a trip to the Super Bowl, this game could lay the groundwork. Emmanuel Sanders, an offseason addition, said Bills players spoke up during the week about things they could have done better when the two teams met last season.
"That's the thing about the National Football League is, sometimes you don't get an opportunity but sometimes you get another opportunity," Sanders said. "So, we got a big opportunity ahead of us."