Much like losing in November and December, bitter coldness, and not being able to watch the home team on local TV, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s beard has become a staple of late-season football in Buffalo.

Usually around this time of the year the natural post-Christmas depression begins to settle in, and that can be deadly when combined with another kind of crippling depression in upstate New York: watching the playoffs without the Bills for the 12th straight season. So Fitz’s yearly facial forest provides a small dose of comedic relief, and late in December when it’s reached the height of its growth the quarterback’s beard rivals other recent famous beards in sports.

Fitzpatrick’s tradition–if it is even a tradition–of abandoning the razor during football season started pretty harmlessly. Mostly out of laziness he stopped shaving last year, and then after growing tired of heckling from his teammates and being called the “Amish rifle,” and his wife refusing to have contact with his face, he vowed to shave it after the season.

Fans didn’t want his padded and bushy chin warmer to die, and they began an online petition pleading with Fitzpatrick to keep his beard, and perhaps just groom it instead. Alas, the itch on Fitzpatrick’s face won, and he went ahead with the beard shearing. The shaving was ceremonious, and it was the highlight of Buffalo’s post season.

This year the beard returned, and it’s recently begun to engulf half of Fitzpatrick’s face. But even with his impressive progress in 2011, we’re not sure if this latest model lives up to the transformation we saw in 2010. To find out, we did some extensive journalistic research and dug back into our Getty Images archives. We were a little limited by the lack of quality beard pictures, but we’re still able to get a rough idea of Fitzpatrick’s efforts through the sampling below…

2010

Oct. 3 - Dec. 5

Here we see a dramatic growth, starting with a tiny whisker dusting, and then moving to full chin and cheekbone coverage.

2011

Oct. 2 - Dec. 11

The end product is nearly identical this year, but we’re giving his 2010 growth a very narrow win based on its more shaven starting point. It’s a tough debate, and one that will no doubt dominate Bills discussions in Buffalo sports bars throughout the blustery depression during January and February.

For a historical reference, here’s a baby-faced Fitzpatrick on picture day prior to his rookie season in 2005 with the Rams. At least we think this is him…