It takes a while, but Patriots get charged up and pull out emotional victory
Tedy Bruschi seemed to enjoy his first game back last night. (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)
FOXBOROUGH -- A certain celebration was required.
After all, how many times does a star player return to a championship football team after suffering a stroke?
A full house, with the much beloved Tedy Bruschi back in uniform for the first time since the Super Bowl, meant the Buffalo Bills should have been party favors, performing clowns at this festive gathering of Patriots faithful.
Dispatched by the NFL to appear at Gillette Stadium last night -- an ideal example of being at the wrong place at the wrong time -- the Bills attempted to ignore their prescribed appointment.
But alas, the Patriots did what the Patriots do, claiming a 21-16 win so that the welcome-back party was indeed a party.
Running back Corey Dillon returned to action after missing the last game with a sprained ankle, to score two touchdowns in less than a two-minute span in the fourth period to lift the Patriots to the come-from-behind victory.
With Bruschi in the lineup for the first time this season, nearly nine months after suffering a mild stroke, the New England defense still wasn't in championship form, allowing 389 yards. But for the first time this season it held an opponent under 20 points.
And the Patriots forced two turnovers, the first time this season they have come away with more than one in a game.
Trailing, 16-7, with 10 minutes left, the Patriots (4-3) played with a sense of urgency on offense that was often absent on this night.
Deion Branch's leaping grab for 37 yards that withstood a replay challenge by the Bills was the key play in a six-play, 61-yard trek. Dillon scored on a 1-yard run to close the gap to 16-14 with just over seven minutes remaining.
Now it was time for the much-maligned Patriots defense to make a stand.
Bruschi, a team captain, was the first defender to run off the sideline, and he stopped Willis McGahee on first down for a 3-yard gain.
Then Rosevelt Colvin ran past guard Bennie Anderson and crushed Buffalo quarterback Kelly Holcomb. Not only did Colvin get the sack, but he also forced a fumble and recovered the loose ball at the Bills' 23.
Two plays later, Dillon was pounding his way into the end zone once more.
A pair of penalties on the ensuing kickoff -- a tripping call on Larry Izzo and a personal foul on Matt Chatham -- set the Bills up 3 yards shy of midfield. New England allowed only a single first down, and recent signee Hank Poteat finished the Bills off by stopping Eric Moulds for no gain on a fourth-and-8 play from the Patriots' 40 with 1:56 left.
Bruschi's return led to the benching of the inside linebacker tandem of Monty Beisel and Chad Brown, who started the first five games of the season.
Bruschi started with Mike Vrabel on the inside, with Willie McGinest and Colvin outside. Beisel was on the bench, and Brown inactive.
New England showed some precision on its first drive after the intermission, with a crisp five-play, 70-yard scoring march.
Dillon, who sat out the Denver game, carried three times for 24 yards to get the drive going. Tom Brady and Branch finished it off with a nice hookup.
Branch got behind cornerback Nate Clements in single coverage on the left side and hauled in a perfect throw from Brady for a 33-yard touchdown and the Patriots' first lead.
The Bills were hardly staggered by the Patriots' quick blow, answering in short order by going 83 yards in just three plays. Moulds had the bookend plays of the drive, with an 18-yard grab to start things off and a 55-yard catch to polish it off.
Again, as has so often been the case this season, the Bills isolated a receiver against cornerback Duane Starks, and the Patriots cornerback did not get the job done.
This time it appeared he expected some deep help on the post pattern, but none came and all Moulds had to do was wrestle with Eugene Wilson inside the 10-yard line to get into the end zone.
The next time Buffalo had the ball, Patriots' cornerback Asante Samuel picked off first interception of the season by a defensive back to set New England up at the Buffalo 45.
The Patriots didn't take advantage of the nice play, however, as Chris Kelsay and Justin Bannan wrapped up Brady for a sack and 7-yard loss to force a punt.
Backed up at their 3, the Bills threatened to go the length of the field to make a statement, but ended up with a 35-yard field goal by Rian Lindell to take a 13-7 lead. Still, the 80-yard drive took more than six minutes off the clock.
Soon thereafter, Brady was stripped of the ball in the pocket and it was recovered by Lauvale Sape at the New England 29.
The Bills got a 41-yard field goal from Lindell to extend their lead to 16-7 with 10:07 to play.
After a six-game stretch in which its defense was below average, the Patriots couldn't find any offense in the first half.
Buffalo ran twice as many plays and compiled 12 first downs to New England's five in the first two quarters, with the Bills having possession of the ball for a whopping 22:07 to the Patriots' 7:53.
McGahee, who recently declared himself the best back in the league, got off to a hot start, rushing for 74 yards on 15 carries in the first half.
The Patriots didn't have much of a running game (31 yards), but that was mostly because they had few opportunities. New England ran the ball only seven times in its 20 plays. Plus, the Patriots were limited in personnel. Patrick Pass started for Dillon, but went down with an apparent hamstring injury in the second quarter.
Buffalo controlled the ball for 12 minutes in the first quarter, though neither team put any points on the board.
The Bills had the best early scoring chance, driving inside the Patriots 30-yard line before stalling. But Lindell's 46-yard field goal attempt flew wide left with 15 seconds remaining in the first period.
Pass (three carries for 17 yards) lost the ball on a fumble as he was running a sweep and apparently pulled his left hamstring. Aaron Schobel recovered for the Bills at their 48.
The Patriots were fortunate the Bills only picked up 3 points off the turnover. Tight end Tim Euhus dropped a would-be touchdown pass after being hit by Vrabel at the goal line, forcing Buffalo to settle for a 23-yarder from Lindell to take a 3-0 lead with 8:45 left in the half.
The Patriots put together a drive near the end of the half, but failed to score when Adam Vinatieri misfired from 44 yards out.
A costly delay of game penalty on the previous play had backed the Patriots up to that distance. Vinatieri squeezed the earlier effort inside the right upright, but it was nullified by the miscue. The official try was off to the left.