Patriots break through on road with win over Buffalo
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Matt Light glanced up at the scoreboard hovering over Ralph Wilson Stadium Sunday, the most pivotal day of the Patriots' season, and peeked at the scores from out of town. Over the course of the afternoon, with the results from three games, Light knew his team's postseason aspirations would be crushed or cemented.
As word spread through the Patriots locker room today following their own victory, a 17-10 survival against the Buffalo Bills, the news gave the players reason to celebrate all over again. The New York Jets had lost to the Atlanta Falcons, and the Miami Dolphins had lost to the Tennessee Titans. Barring an unthinkable collapse, the Patriots are going back to the playoffs.
In roughly three hours, the Patriots had won at any opponent's stadium for the first time in six tries, beaten the Bills for the 13th straight time, ambushed the Bills with their best pass rush of the season, and dissolved the controversy surrounding Randy Moss. Most importantly, they shifted their playoff chances from questionable to virtually certain.
"I guess," Light said, "It doesn't get any better than that."
Like their win last week over the Carolina Panthers, the victory provided little visual appeal.
"It was ugly, no doubt," Light said.
The final minutes provided moments that were "nervous as it gets" on the Patriots sideline, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain said. But the Patriots cherished the end result.
Now 9-5, New England holds a two-game edge over both the Jets and Dolphins with two games remaining. The Patriots will clinch the division with a victory in either of their last two games or if the Dolphins lose either of their final two games. The Jets, because of tie-breaking procedures, have been mathematically eliminated from winning the division.
With their playoff bid nearly secure, the sporting world will have to find something other than Moss to talk about. Following his awful performance last week and the ensuing firestorm of criticism, Moss responded by dissolving the controversy swirling around him. He caught five passes for 70 yards, including the a 13-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone early in the second quarter that put the Patriots ahead for good.
Afterward, Moss strode into his press conference, offered a defiant statement, and left without taking questions, letting his resilient message stand.
"I've been in this league 12 years, man, and I've been through a lot," Moss said. "And these shoulders that I have on my body, you can put the Earth on it. So, just to let you know, I bounce back. I appreciate it."
Quarterback Tom Brady finished with pedestrian statistics, completing 11 of 23 passes for 115 yards, his eighth-fewest in a complete game his fewest in a full game since he compiled 109 yards on Dec. 17, 2006 against the Houston Texans. The Patriots instead relied on Laurence Maroney, who ran 23 times for 81 yards and a touchdown, his ninth this season.
The Bills threatened to repay the Patriots for their miraculous comeback victory in the season's opening week. The Patriots controlled the game throughout the second half, but a 20-yard punt return by Roscoe Parrish gave the Bills the ball on the Patriots 28-yard line with 3 minutes, 37 seconds remaining.
Suddenly, after a gaggle of fans headed for the turnstiles, Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick -- previously benched and re-inserted only after an injury to Trent Edwards -- led a rapid scoring drive. He completed two passes, the second an 11-yard fade to Lee Evans in front of the right pylon.
The scare continued when Rian Lindell rolled on onside kick off the tee. Sam Aiken allowed the ball to bounce off his chest, and what was left of the 70,000 fans in attendance exploded when the Bills fell on the ball. It hushed when they noticed a flag -- Aaron Maybin had been offside.
The Bills kicked deep, and they wouldn't see the ball again. The Patriots ran twice, setting up a crucial third and 6. They turned to the player they also turn to when things are crucial.
"We need to get the first down in that situation," wide receiver Wes Welker said. "I am aware of it."
Welker ran across the middle and settled five yards off the line. Brady drilled a pass into his gut, and Welker dived forward for the first down. The Patriots exhaled, and Brady knelt three times.
The Bills opened the game by attacking the Patriots' decimated defensive line, gashing the line with repeated runs. Ron Brace started in place of injured nose tackle Vince Wilfork, and Mike Wright started at defensive end for Ty Warren.
The Bills centered their gameplan around the absences, tackle Jonathan Scott said. They wanted to run the ball at the Patriots and force the Patriots to move up their safeties. Then they would exploit one-on-one matchups on the outside with their dual deep threats, wide receivers Terrell Owens and Evans.
On the first drive, the plan worked. The Bills ran the ball on 10 of their 14 plays and grinded 9 minutes, 24 seconds off the clock before settling for a field goal. The Bills may have been able to bludgeon the Patriots line all game, but they immolated their drives with penalties, putting their offense in down-and-distances that necessitated passing. The Bills piled 104 penalty yards in the first half -- the most penalty yards by any team in any half this NFL season.
Once the Bills were forced to pass, the Patriots unveiled a defensive wrinkle that Belichick dusted off from previous seasons. On third and long, the Patriots lined up with six defensive backs, zero defensive linemen, and five linebackers strewn about the line of scrimmage, standing up and darting around like pinballs before the snap.
No Patriots defender would divulge the specific name of the scheme, but they knew how to categorize it.
"It's called organized chaos," Adalius Thomas said.
The formation flummoxed the Bills offensive line, which was particularly susceptible to confusion. It has been besieged by injuries, and the Bills acquired guard Richie Incognito this week and immediately inserted him into the starting lineup. The alignment, Scott said, forced the Bills into protection schemes they did not want to use.
The defense energized the Patriots' pass rush, which entered tied for 27th in the NFL in sacks with 22. The Patriots finished today with six sacks, three of them from Banta-Cain. The pressure also forced an interception by Fitzpatrick that killed a Bills drive at midfield.
The Patriots had a lead at halftime, which they also had in four of their first five true road games. All week long, coaches had stressed the importance of finishing games off under hostile conditions.
"It was a huge emphasis," kick returner Matthew Slater said. "We had a 'road win,' but it wasn't a road win to us. We needed to come out and get a road win. This is crunch time."
This time, the Patriots held on. In the locker room, several players huddled around a television and watched overtime of the Jets and Titans. When the winning field goal sailed through, a small cheer went up.
"That," Brady said, "was great news."