THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

It brought out the best in them

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / September 15, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - I lost my bet. I said we would get the Great Stone Face, and only the Great Stone Face.

“That was an exciting game,’’ declared Bill Belichick, temporarily flashing that Mona Lisa grin of his. It wasn’t exactly Ed McMahon guffawing at Johnny Carson, but for Coach Bill, for whom football games are solemn affairs, it was pretty good.

And why not? What we had just seen was a dramatic way to inaugurate the second half-century of Boston/New England Patriots football. Down by 11 with 5:32 left, and en route to an embarrassing loss in which no one would have been accentuating too many positives, the Patriots, with the enormous aid of Buffalo kick returner Leodis McKelvin, scored two TDs to grab a 25-24 lead, then saw the game end on a wild lateral play as the Bills desperately attempted to get into field goal range.

Was it won, or was it lost, and does it really matter? It’s in the books, forever and ever: Patriots 25, Bills 24.

“No matter how many you win by,’’ said Fred Taylor, a sagacious veteran of 147 games, “or if it’s pretty or ugly, you just want to win the game.’’

You surely don’t want to lose it the way the Bills did. Having just given up an 11-play, 81-yard Patriots’ drive that reduced their lead to 24-19 (the Patriots missed a 2-point conversion attempt), the Bills were still in excellent shape as Stephen Gostkowski kicked the ball a yard or so deep in the end zone. There was only one sensible play.

And then . . .

“I see him try to run the ball out,’’ recalled Adalius Thomas, “and I’m saying, ‘What is he doing? Why doesn’t he take a knee?’ ’’

That’s a question being asked this morning all over Western New York, and probably all over the National Football League. One can only imagine what Rex Ryan was thinking.

McKelvin defended his decision as follows: “When I caught the ball, I didn’t know if I had two feet inbounds, or if my momentum took me into the end zone. If I downed it, it may have been a safety, so I decided to bring it out.’’

You buying that?

Anyway, he brought it out, and he was met by a welcoming committee of red-clad folks, all intent on separating him from the ball. Pierre Woods got the official credit for a strip, and guess who recovered it?

Gostkowski.

“A tough kid,’’ shrugged Coach Bill, who acted as if a kicker recovering the game-changing fumble is an everyday occurrence.

The ball was on the 32, and it took Tom Brady three plays to find Benjamin Watson for an artful backward grab and a 16-yard touchdown pass. Like anyone was surprised.

Brady struggled early. He was wild high and there were no miracles in his bag most of the game. But when he had to be the Golden Child, he was, no-huddling his way for eight completions in the 81-yard drive that put the game back within reach (culminating in a 18-yard TD aerial to Watson), then taking advantage of the McKelvin gaffe in his typically efficient manner. Yeah, he’s back, all right.

“It’s a good feeling to have that rhythm back,’’ said tackle Matt Light. “He was out there, making all the right plays, delivering the ball, and the receivers were making huge catches.’’

But let’s make one thing perfectly clear. The Patriots had earned that 11-point deficit. Or it’s probably more accurate (and less parochial) to say the Bills earned their 11-point lead. Three Patriots’ drives that coulda/shoulda/woulda been touchdowns ended up as a 41-yard Gostkowski field goal miss, plus a pair of gimmes (20 and 28) after the Patriots had been first and goal at the 9 and first and 10 at the Buffalo 16.

And the Patriots’ defense? Don’t ask. There was minimal pressure on quarterback Trent Edwards (until they absolutely, positively had to have it on Buffalo’s final possession) and there was general befuddlement on some killer third-down conversions. One of the reasons the Patriots were supposed to be able to withstand the loss of veterans such as Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, and Rodney Harrison (let’s leave Ellis Hobbs out of this) was the soothing presence of second-year linebacker Jerod Mayo, a player so poised and advanced he was named a defensive captain at age 23. Well, Mayo left the game about nine minutes in with a knee injury and never returned. He was missed.

A case could be made that the only reason the Patriots weren’t down by a lot more was Buffalo’s self-destruction with regard to penalties (9 for 71 yards).

So there was nothing good going on from a New England point of view after Edwards had taken the Bills 62 yards in 14 plays to seize that 24-13 lead. It was a signal for the fair-weather types to head for the parking lot, and you sorry people know who you are. One word for you: Ha!

Oh ye of limited faith. Have you forgotten about No. 12? “He whispered ‘We’re gonna win this game,’ and I’m being as honest as I can be,’’ said Taylor. Time and again, the word “situations,’’ or the phrase “situational football’’ reverberated throughout the Patriots locker room. History has taught us, for example, that Brady loves the two-minute drill. And there still are a lot of people on this team who’ve been through some tough battles with him.

To hear them tell it, this game was won weeks ago, next door, on the practice field. Situations. The Patriots practice them all.

“Situational football,’’ said Laurence Maroney. “You never know what’s going to happen in this game. If you never prepare for it, how are you going to handle it?’’

And if a Leodis McKelvin exercises dubious judgment, you’ve got to make him pay. That’s all.

They know how poorly they played most of the game. They know how lucky they are. But they’re 1-0. They’ll clean it up.

Oh, and you, Mr. I-Think-I’ll-Beat-The Traffic: Serves you right.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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