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Patriots get closure for the moment

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  November 12, 2012 10:15 AM

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FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots will tell you, time and again and to a man, that a "W is a W," the implication being that a haphazard route is easier to endure if victory proves to be destination.

They repeat a "W is a W'' or a slight variation so often -- from their iconic quarterback to diminutive running back who scored Sunday on the ground and in the air to the the maligned cornerback/safety who secured their latest win -- that it's a mild upset that the phrase doesn't hang among the inspirational phrases that adorn signs on the walls along the hallway from the Patriots locker room to the field.

(There is, however, a quote from Lou Holtz. Surprisingly, it does not reference his 3-10 record with the '76 Jets.)

The chief reason why they say it so often is obvious on the surface -- it's because they win so often, especially against the Buffalo Bills, who are essentially a mental W for Patriots fans, if not the laser-focused, count-no-victory-before-it-has-hatched players, the day the schedule is released.

What's left unsaid, or only surreptitiously hinted at, is that a W won't always be the result if the Patriots can't find a way to mask their fundamental flaws against teams more capable of exposing them than the perennially irrelevant Bills.

The Patriots' 37-31 victory Sunday was their 12th straight at home and 23d in the teams' last 25 meetings over Buffalo. The Bills' longest-tenured employees must look at Tom Brady the way the Washington Generals did Meadowlark Lemon.

While countless statistics reaffirm and reaffirm again how much the Patriots dominate the Bills -- this is the 10th time in 12 years they've swept the season series -- the truth is that they did not dominate this particular game.

At times it felt as if they were in complete command, such as when they build leads of 17-3 (on a Danny Woodhead 15-yard touchdown run in the second quarter), 24-10 (Rob Gronkowski 1-yard scoring reception with just under 4 minutes remaining in the first half, sadly unaccompanied by a stateside Little Nutcracker Dude Who Guards The House celebration) and even 31-17 (Woodhead, 18-yard catch-and-run midway through the third quarter, and how terrific has he been used in appropriate moderation?)

The Patriots had a run of 11 straight scoring drives against the Bills, dating to their 52-28 rout in Week 3, snapped on a two-play, 31-second, let's-get-to-the-locker-room-already possession at the end of the first half.

If it didn't quite feel like a rout in the making, it never felt particularly close, either.

Yet there the Patriots were in the final moments, staring down potential defeat, clinging to a 37-31 lead, the football in Ryan Fitzpatrick's hands with 28 seconds remaining and the end zone 15 yards away. The former Harvard star has a history of throwing crushing late-game interceptions, having done so with less than three minutes remaining in a 38-30 Patriots win here two years ago, and he could not help but oblige again Sunday, throwing a strike to a perfectly positioned Devin McCourty to halt any hopes the Bills had of departing with a rare W.

The Patriots gave up 481 yards to the Bills. Hey, at least it wasn't 496.

"We are not disappointed at all about winning the ballgame,'' said Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, who forced a fumble leading to the first Patriots touchdown, one of three Buffalo turnovers, "but there are some things that we have to do better and there are some things we did well out there, but at the same time, the main goal is to win, and we did."

The W is a W, and maybe the Patriots can continue to live dangerously. In some regard, the escape against the Bills that pushes their record to 6-3, as it was through nine games a second ago, feels like it balances out one of the losses -- to Seattle, Baltimore, and most regrettably with hindsight, Arizona -- in which they couldn't close.

While Deion Branch ("Kudos and thanks to our defense, man -- they did a great job of saving us") was among the Patriots to credit the save to McCourty and friends, the reality is that save for the three turnovers and some well-timed big hits, it was again the defense that allowed the opposition to stay with the Patriots' prodigious offense, which may be the deepest and most balanced unit of the Brady era.

Unfortunately, the Bills offense was made to look as effective and explosive as the Patriots offense, and can you imagine the numbers Brady would put up if he got to face the likes of Kyle Arrington and Steve Gregory on a Sunday?

Fitzpatrick threw for 337 yards while Fred Jackson and the dynamic C.J. Spiller combined for 150 on the ground. Missed tackles were an epidemic -- McCourty and Jerod Mayo, two usually dependable hitters, were particularly guilty -- and the Bills picked up double-digit chunks of yardage over the middle of the field almost at will. Let's just say any notion that repairs were made to the pass defense during the bye week were disproved quickly and repeatedly.

"Everyone has different problems on their teams, offensively, defensively, and [we] just have to keep working and improving things each week,'' McCourty said.

The question that lingers heading into next week's matchup against Andrew Luck and the Colts is whether there's really been any improvement at all. A W is a W, sure, and McCourty made the big play at the end, and the defense was opportunistic, and Brandon Spikes got into Fitzpatrick's head after nearly knocking it off, and still, there's no way around the fact that in the final minute the Bills had a chance to steal a game that should have been settled so much sooner.

There are recent times in which the Patriots have prevailed in such a situation -- last year's victory in the AFC Championship over the Ravens being the most notable, with Sterling Moore's brilliant play on Lee Evans saving the day.

But it is impossible not to watch a team driving down the field in a quest for a winning touchdown in the final moments and not think of the two Super Bowl opportunities lost because the game was 60 minutes long rather than 59.

"I think that shows the true characteristics of a team when you're in a close battle you have to fight down in the fourth quarter with two minutes to go and you have to win,'' said McCourty, and he's right. But you also wonder why they can't make it easier on themselves, that the 45-7 victory over the Rams two weeks ago was a harbinger that they were about to put it all together and take a whole lot of unnecessary suspense and degree of difficulty out of their victories.

This defense should be better. The quality runs deeper than seven players at defensive line and linebacker -- even Justin Francis and Jermaine Cunningham are contributing -- and the defensive backfield has better talent than it did at this point a season ago, when the Patriots were also 6-3 and one game into a 10-game winning streak that would carry them to Indianapolis.

Perhaps Aqib Talib will stay out of trouble and help and they'll solve it to the degree they did a season ago, when it was the offense as much the defense that let them down in the end. This season's Patriots offense is awesome in its balance, the running game (fifth in the NFL) actually ranking higher than the passing game (seventh) for the No. 1 overall offense.

If they can just correct that very real flaw in the pass defense, the Patriots can win the Super Bowl this season. They can claim that elusive fourth Lombardi Trophy, put Bill Belichick on that four-time-winners podium alongside Chuck Noll and allow Tom Brady to shake Troy Aikman and join Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the QB with the most rings as a starter.

This team is better than the one that was a play or two short last February, and even on the occasional frustrating Sunday, we should never lose sight of how remarkable this run has been, in this modern NFL structured toward the the Land of 8-8 that Pete Rozelle desired and the Cloudy-Eyed Land of 9-9 that Roger Goodell dreams of.

"I'll take any win,'' Bill Belichick said Sunday. "I'll take any win."

Because -- say it with me, say it with them -- a W is a W. Even if they must fix that maddening habit of allowing some to teeter unnecessarily close to being an L.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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