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BOB RYAN

A win, but which direction now?

FOXBOROUGH -- You know what they say: You've seen the last 10 minutes of an NFL game, you've seen it all.

That's a joke, son, but just barely. For your defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots did pack all their goodness into the final 10 minutes of last night's game, coming from a 16-7 deficit to pull out a vital 21-16 triumph over the Buffalo Bills last night.

Get used to that word ''vital." You may be hearing that word, and assorted offshoots, a lot in the remainder of the season as the Patriots scratch and claw their way to the playoffs. This remains a flawed, highly human, and completely vulnerable team. Don't think that beating the Bills at home is any big deal. It's just taking care of necessary business, and the Patriots were barely able to do that.

As usual, coach Bill Belichick made it sound a bit more impressive than it was. ''It was a good win for our football team. I'm proud of our guys," he said. ''A lot of things went in our favor. We made some things happen out there. It was a tough division game. They all are."

You can be sure that when he and the coaches get together they'll be talking about a different game. No one knows better than those men that when the other team has you in time of possession by a 2-1 margin, you must consider yourselves fortunate to win.

''It was kind of a sloppy game," Belichick conceded. ''There were a lot of mistakes on both sides. There are a lot of things we have to clean up, and we can do better."

For the first 50 minutes, the Patriots' negatives far outweighed the positives. The Bills deserved to have that 16-7 lead. And given the nature of their sputtering offense and oft-putrid tackling, the Patriots deserved to be trailing by a lot more. The fact that the Bills only had a 9-point lead after all that told you far more about their true nature than it did about anything involving the Patriots. Playing the way they did against a good team, the Patriots would have been lucky to be within two or three touchdowns.

But thanks to their nifty 10-minute drill, the Patriots came away with the W. They are now 4-3 and they are alone at the top of the AFC East.

So what happened? What happened was that the Bills had to settle for a field goal after forcing a Tom Brady fumble at the New England 29. The Bills could have put the game out of reach at that point, but they were only able to advance the ball 6 yards. Rian Lindell kicked a 41-yard field goal that made it 16-7 with just over 10 minutes to go.

Not getting that touchdown was a fatal mistake, and it didn't take the Patriots long to capitalize as Brady (14 for 21, 199 yards, one TD) connected with Deion Branch for a 37-yard gain to the Buffalo 24. Five plays later, Corey Dillon was banging in from the 1 and it was 16-14 with 7:06 remaining.

It took two plays for something big to happen. On second and 7 at the Buffalo 32, Rosevelt Colvin burst in from the right side, blowing past 345-pound Bennie Anderson to make the play all pass rushers dream about. Entering from the blind side, he knocked the ball loose from Buffalo quarterback Kelly Holcomb and then recovered it himself. It was the biggest defensive play of the game.

Brady's highly developed instinct for the jugular surfaced immediately as he once again connected with Branch, who made a highly professional diving catch for a first-and-goal at the 1. For the evening, Branch had three receptions for 92 yards and one touchdown. That's called production.

''He's made some big catches," said Belichick. ''He's done a real good job for us all year and he did it again tonight."

''I'm never shocked at what Deion does," said Brady. ''All you've got to do is get it to him, and he'll catch it."

Dillon, who ran hard all night, blasted in for the winning touchdown. His numbers (18 carries, 72 yards) do not reflect his impact on the Patriots' second-half play.

All the Patriots needed was one big stop and they got it when Holcomb's pass to Eric Moulds on a fourth-and-8 situation at the Patriots' 40 went for no gain.

So in the end, it was possible to overlook the dreadful, penalty-strewn first half. Neither team could have been pleased with that 3-0 score. But it was far more embarrassing for the world champions, who were coming off a bye week and who were playing, despite the glowing comments of their coach, a mediocre foe at home. This was an escape job. The coach indeed will have plenty to talk about with his troops this week.

Tedy Bruschi? What can you say, other than he was amazing? He was out there forever, and he did so without the benefit of training camp. It is truly remarkable that the announcement that he would try to come back is only two weeks old. The only downer is that there aren't more of him. If he could split himself into another linebacker, a corner, and a safety, the team really would be in good shape.

Anyway, they got through this -- somehow -- and what it did demonstrate was that they do know something about winning. But thus far this season, it's been alternating a win and a loss, until now they are 4-3.

Next up: the Indianapolis Colts. Supply your own punch line.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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