FOXBOROUGH -- In the end, the Patriots had to bow up to make the Buffalo Bills bow down.
Although the game was little more than half over yesterday, it already had been a long afternoon for the Patriots when the underdog Bills decided now was the moment to put a stake through their heart. After leading, 17-7, at the half, Buffalo took the opening kickoff of the third quarter and drove 69 yards to a fourth-and-1 at the Patriots' 7. They easily at that point could have elected to pad their lead with a chip-shot field goal, but instead coach Dick Jauron, the pride of Swampscott, decided this was the moment.
In every game such a time comes, often without warning. Everyone involved understood if the Bills picked up another first down and ultimately scored to take a 24-7 lead, the road would be all uphill for the Patriots. So Jauron went for the jugular and ended up getting the life choked out of his team instead.
``That was a critical point in the game, and if you make plays at those critical points, it gives your team a chance to win," said linebacker Don Davis not long after he'd made that critical play, stuffing Bills running back Willis McGahee for no gain when the line stalemated the blockers in front of them, giving Davis the kind of thing you can't find driving around Boston these days -- an unimpeded route to his destination.
``It was just a simple goal-line play where they try to give it to the tailback and it's just a power play," Davis said. ``Everybody's running through and it's just us against them. Whoever is going to hold up, that's what it's going to be. We wanted to make a statement and they wanted to make a statement."
The statement was made by the Patriots' defense when it threw those linemen back, allowing Davis to throw McGahee down just short of the first down. Or at least that's what the officials said. They gave the ball to New England, and the next thing you knew, it was 17-14, and then it was 17-17, and then it was 19-17, at which time it was over. But it was really over before that. It was over the moment Davis walked through untouched and dragged down a guy who claims to be the best back in football.
Standing 6 feet tall, all McGahee had to do was fall forward at the line of scrimmage and it was first and goal. Instead, he fell sideways. Or, more to the point, got knocked sideways. And back. No gain, much pain.
``I think I got it," McGahee said. ``I stretched the ball at the end, but the ball got kicked back and that's where the referee spotted it. There isn't anything you can do about it. They had a good defense out there and they stopped it.
``It was designed to go to the right, but they shut it off. They have a great defensive line and they made a great play and penetrated. There wasn't anything I could do about it."
From that point on, there wasn't anything the Bills' offense could do about much of anything. After 30 minutes, they had gained 166 yards and controlled the ball for 16 minutes 43 seconds. By the time Davis leveled McGahee, Buffalo had had the ball for 22:19 and had gained 235 yards. The Bills would gain only 5 more yards and hold the ball only another 4:46 the rest of the afternoon. Worse, one of the times they did have it, they'd managed to lose the game as a result of another defensive charge by the Patriots' front line, when Buffalo's beleaguered quarterback, J.P. Losman, was sacked for a safety midway through the fourth quarter by Ty Warren.
Surrounded by a collapsing wall of his blockers and New England's defenders, Losman showed his inexperience by choosing not to cut his losses and dump the ball off, instead believing he could make a play. McGahee had felt the same way a few minutes earlier when his number was called. Both learned football is not about feelings.
``When the game's on the line, you want to make a play," Losman said. ``Next time it comes up, you'd like to get rid of the ball, but I thought I could dip under one of their defenders, set my feet, and throw. I didn't see the other one [coming]. When I dipped under one, there was another guy."
That guy was Warren, who scored the first points he could remember since his days of being ``a tight end like Daniel Graham. I mostly blocked." No longer in the tight end business, Warren now is in the business of scrambling the quarterback's brains, which he did as he plopped all over the unsuspecting Losman and wrestled him down for what would be the winning points. That, of course, was fitting, because this game was won by defense more than anything else.
While New England's defense stiffened as the game progressed, Buffalo's weakened. In the first half, they'd wreaked havoc on the Patriots, holding them to an embarrassing 3 yards passing and 3.8 yards per play. Tom Brady was 3 for 11, sacked three times, had three passes tipped, and seldom saw an open receiver. It was a performance so frustrating that the supposedly loyal Patriots fans booed their team as it left the field.
``Fans will be fans," a philosophical Richard Seymour said, a shy grin on his face. ``They want to win."
Seymour and his defensive cohorts helped make that a reality by dominating the Bills in the second half at the same time Brady and the offense began to move, controlling the ball for 12:01 of the final 15 minutes while the defense and rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski took care of the scoring.
``We just broke down at the wrong moments," Jauron lamented. ``You would love to have made it 24-7, but because we didn't get it, I'd like to have the decision back and kick it through and make them kick it in the end, you know, to make them have to kick it at the end of the game to beat us."
They didn't have to, however, because the Patriots beat them up in the shadow of their own goal line at a most critical moment, and then beat them down a few minutes later in the shadow of the Bills' goal line to win the game. One can say all one wants about the Patriots' running game, which was magnificent, but this was a game won by tough men in the trenches of New England's defensive line and the linebackers who stood behind them, making tackles when it counted and refusing to budge an inch when the game was being decided.
``A fourth-down stop is like a turnover," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. ``Those plays don't go down as turnovers, but they really are. And I think we tackled a little bit better from about the middle of the second quarter on.
``They kept us off balance [early]. We gave up too many plays early in the game. But our guys stayed aggressive, and I thought we did play better as the game went along. We played some good football when we needed to."
That is the mark of good teams and confident teams. They grind you down. They wear you out. They squeeze you until your mind snaps and you do what Losman did, try too hard to make a play that isn't there, or what McGahee did, fall a yard short.
The Patriots wore the Bills down more mentally than physically and the proof, as it often is, was in the numbers. Five second-half penalties by Buffalo, many in key moments, none by New England. Five yards of offense after their momentum was broken at the goal line by Davis, 204 by the Patriots.
That is what good teams do on Opening Day. They find a way to win, even if they've spent much of the afternoon not playing well enough to win.
Yesterday they did it with the run to some extent, but most of all they did it with a defense that rose up when it was challenged and reminded the Bills and all of pro football what has made them three-time Super Bowl champions.
``They had the opportunity to really stick it to us," safety Rodney Harrison said of that fourth-down stoppage by Davis. ``I knew they'd go for it. But if you do the right thing time and time again, the coin will fall on your side most of the time. We did that today. We stayed tough."
Tough enough to do what had to be done when it had to be done.