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Winners punched time clock

By Mike Reiss
November 10, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - It's a nice problem to have.

On a day when receiver Lee Evans and running back Marshawn Lynch were supposed to be a primary worry, Patriots safety James Sanders found himself with a different type of concern.

"The only disadvantage when that happens is that you can have some trouble staying loose on the sideline," he said.

The statistic to which Sanders was referring was time of possession: Patriots 37:40, Bills 22:20. Calling on a style that is quickly becoming part of their offensive identity, the Patriots once again turned into clock-killers with a possession-based approach in their 20-10 victory over the Bills yesterday at Gillette Stadium.

The performance marked the seventh time in nine games this season the Patriots have won the time-of-possession battle, which reflects, in part, how the team's offense has morphed into something considerably different from what it was in 2007.

Gone is the record-setting, big-play attack that often would strike in an instant.

In its place is an offense content to either nickel-and-dime opponents, or run through them, causing what can be an uncomfortable death.

Just ask members of the Bills defense - who had the life sucked out of them during the Patriots' impressive 19-play scoring drive in the fourth quarter - what it felt like to be on the field for 22 minutes, 44 seconds of the 30-minute second half.

"I was definitely tired out there," Buffalo cornerback Terrence McGee said. "Long drives take a lot out of you."

The Patriots had drives of 11, 13, and 19 plays, with coach Bill Belichick calling the final 19-play march - culminating in a 1-yard touchdown run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis - "the game" because it lasted 9:08 and increased a 13-3 lead to 20-3.

"That last drive was awesome," Belichick said. "We took a lot of time off the clock, and got 7 points. It was good time management and real good execution when we needed it, especially in the second half."

The 19-play drive also had Belichick turning back the clock - to the team's 20-3 AFC Divisional-round playoff win over the Colts on Jan. 16, 2005.

That was a game in which the Patriots killed the clock in a similar fashion on a 94-yard fourth-quarter drive that lasted 7:24.

Think Belichick is into the details? He even noted that drive in '05 was to the same non-lighthouse side of the stadium.

Yesterday, the Bills had held a slight time-of-possession edge at the half (15:04-14:56), but the Patriots simply wrestled control from them, mostly with a hard-charging, take-no-prisoners running game that continues to be undermanned with just three healthy backs - Green-Ellis, Kevin Faulk, and Heath Evans.

The Patriots had opened the game by spreading the field with four receivers, a sign they felt they might exploit the Bills' undermanned secondary. While the spread produced some solid results, it was the tighter formations that called on blockers to win one-on-one battles - coupled with some clutch throws in critical situations, and one Bills defensive holding penalty - that ultimately helped New England take control.

Of the Patriots' second-half plays, 25 came out of formations with two or more tight ends, of which 16 also had bulldozing lead-blocking fullback Evans.

"I love seeing the offensive line get an opportunity to pound people," said the 6-foot, 250-pound Evans. "We constantly spread people out because it's the best thing for us, but when we hunker down at the end of the game and put together [19]-play drives, that doesn't happen too often in this league."

Not including kneeldowns, the Patriots ran 25 times in the second half, while passing 17, a grind-it-out, power-based approach that put the spotlight on the offensive line of left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins, center Dan Koppen, right guard Russ Hochstein (in for Stephen Neal), and right tackle Nick Kaczur.

"That's a lineman's dream, to wear them down," Mankins said. "No one wants to be called a finesse line."

Such an approach seems to be growing on members of the offense as they've adapted to their unexpected change at quarterback, with Matt Cassel stepping in for the injured Tom Brady.

"Last year it was big plays, [quick] drives," Mankins said. "This year, we're playing consistent, wear-you-down football."

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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