ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - David Patten was unconscious, lying on the cold Ralph Wilson Stadium turf, his head out of bounds, the rest of his body inbounds. The ball was beneath his legs after safety Keion Carpenter had blasted him following a 13-yard reception from Tom Brady.
It was 9-9 in overtime in a divisional game that meant everything to the Patriots, and much less to the Bills, but Buffalo jerseys came flying out of nowhere toward the loose ball, and Nate Clements grabbed it.
It appeared Patten had fumbled after making a catch at the Buffalo 41. Patten was unconscious for approximately 10 seconds, and when he finally came to, the officials were running around, and the Bills were claiming they’d recovered a fumble.
When the replay official reviewed the play, he invoked Rule 3, Section 20, Article 2, Paragraph C of the rule book.
Referee Mike Carey said, “On the play, there is a reception by the receiver. He fumbled. The ball was loose in the field of play and while in contact with the receiver’s calf, his head hit out of bounds. By rule, that’s a loose ball. If a loose ball touches anything that is out of bounds, it is itself out of bounds and it would be in possession of the receiver.”
The Patriots retained possession, and went on to an amazing 12-9 win on Adam Vinatieri’s 23-yard field goal, his fourth of the game. The kick was set up by a 38-yard Antowain Smith run on which he bounced off three would-be tacklers and broke into the clear.
The Patriots improved to 9-5 with their fourth straight win, setting the stage for their showdown with the Dolphins, with first place in the AFC East on the line, Saturday at Foxboro Stadium.
But nobody was ready to speak about the Dolphins.
“I’ll think about them Tuesday,” said linebacker Bryan Cox. “We’re going to enjoy this one right now.”
And there were sighs of relief. After all, four of the Patriots’ last five games against the Bills have gone to overtime.
“We know how fortunate we are to come out of here with a win,” said Smith, who for the second time this season buried his former team with a long run in the last minutes of the game. “It was just one of those things. I got stopped in a pile of people, kept my legs moving, and bounced away. You never give up. I hadn’t contributed like I wanted the entire game. The Bills are a tough team defensively and they’ve shown that in two games. To win this, we’re so happy.”
The victory - and the favorable call by the officials - made the Patriots look more and more like a team of destiny.
“I really don’t know what the ruling was,” said coach Bill Belichick. “Mike came over to explain it and I couldn’t even hear him. We were trying to get the rest of the plays in at that point.”
Bills coach Gregg Williams called it a “tough call.” He added, “I was told that the ball was fumbled and the ball was in contact with the team that last possessed it. So they ruled out of bounds by contact. I have never seen a play like that.”
Patten said, “In training camp when the officials came to visit us for their yearly review of rules, they showed us a similar play.”
The Bills won the toss at the start of OT, and began driving, but Otis Smith broke up a third-and-2 pass intended for Eric Moulds, forcing a punt. The Patriots set up shop at the 20, and Brady completed a 13-yard pass to J.R. Redmond, and an 8-yarder to Troy Brown. A couple of Antowain Smith runs went for 5 yards, then Brady hit Patten on the right sideline. He caught it and took a jarring hit from Carpenter before Clements pounced.
After they made their ruling - the officials have discretion over replays in OT - Smith broke from a pack on the next play and rambled 38 yards to the 3. After a 2-yard loss by Brady positioned the ball in the middle of the field, Vinatieri, who had been 5 for 12 on field goal attempts in Buffalo, made his fourth of the day to win it.
Defensively, the Patriots were very good, allowing no touchdowns and only three third-down conversions in 15 attempts. It also forced two fumbles and an interception.
Mike Vrabel had eight tackles and three defensed passes. The Patriots used Roman Phifer and Tedy Bruschi in their 4-3 scheme and left Ted Johnson and Cox on the bench most of the game. While Otis Smith missed an interception early in the game, he defensed two crucial passes and made six tackles.
Lawyer Milloy had an interception of an Alex Van Pelt pass on the same third-quarter series in which Ty Law fell back on his head and neck. Law suffered a mild concussion and left the game. Milloy’s pick came on a pass intended for tight end Jay Riemersma at the Patriots 8. It was a huge play, as the Bills had driven from their 20.
The Patriots’ offense was another story.
Brady had one of his worst games, completing 19 of 35 passes for 237 yards and no touchdown passes for the third consecutive game.
He was sacked five times, twice by rookie defensive end Aaron Schobel, who got the best of New England rookie left tackle Matt Light.
Vinatieri booted a 40-yard field goal with 4:02 remaining in the first quarter to give the Patriots a 3-0 lead. Because there was no precipitation, unusual for this time of year in Buffalo, it was thought the teams might put some points up. Far from it.
The Patriots added another 3 on Vinatieri’s 32-yard kick with 53 seconds remaining in the first half - the big play on that drive a 40-yard sideline pass from Brady to Patten to the Bills 18. Brady took a couple of shots at the end zone, but the Bills defensed them well.
The Bills caught a third-quarter break when Smith fumbled at the Patriots 30, Raion Hill knocking the ball free and recovering. The Bills got only to the 23 before Shayne Graham kicked a 41-yarder to pull the Bills within 3.
On a drive that lasted 7 minutes 46 minutes and 15 plays, the Bills drove from their 17, and on third and 7 at the Patriots 7, Van Pelt threw to Price in the far left corner of the end zone. It wasn’t obvious whether Price got both feet inbounds. The Bills never challenged the play, however.
“With the shots we got, we didn’t believe it was conclusive enough to overturn the call,” said Williams, whose team kicked another field goal to tie it, 6-6.
The teams exchanged two more fourth-quarter field goals, and then fate, as it has much of this season, shined on the Patriots again.