FOXBOROUGH - It was Drewsome.
Four horrible interceptions by former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe, one fumble by Peerless Price, and all the Patriots had to do yesterday was make sure they took advantage in a 27-17 win over the Bills that Bledsoe handed them on a silver platter.
The division win improved New England’s record to 8-5 and dropped the Bills to 6-7, which would appear to have ended any hopes Buffalo had of becoming a wild-card team in the AFC playoffs. The Patriots, in first place in the AFC East pending tonight’s Miami-Chicago game, are in control of the division unless they lose to the Dolphins in the season finale.
The Patriots’ defense was fairly vanilla, with an occasional blitz, but it was mainly Bledsoe who spoiled his own homecoming after receiving a standing ovation when he first took the field.
“It’s nice to be appreciated by the fans, but it certainly wasn’t the way I envisioned it. I wanted to walk off that field victorious,” said Bledsoe, who completed 32 of 51 passes for 328 yards and two TDs to go with his four INTs.
Bledsoe’s last two interceptions didn’t result in Patriots points, but a Richard Seymour pick after Anthony Pleasant deflected a Bledsoe pass late in the first quarter at the Bills’ 9 resulted in a Tom Brady-to-Donald Hayes touchdown.
Another horrendous play was Bledsoe’s interception to Tebucky Jones in the end zone early in the second when it appeared as though the Bills were going to cut the deficit from 17-0 to 17-7.
“It’s frustrating,” said Bledsoe. “If I could have one back it would be that one. It was just a big mistake. I should be throwing it out of the end zone. I think at that point we could have gotten it back to 17-7. It would have made it an entirely different ballgame.”
Jones said, “I was just moving wherever Drew was moving. Willie McGinest was chasing him, getting him to roll to his right, and I was staying back trying to read it. I figured it might come my way.”
Why were the Bills passing on second and goal? The play before they had been stuffed by Jones, who hit Travis Henry for no gain and forced a fumble that the Bills recovered. That might have swayed offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride from a running play.
“When you have a team that throws the ball like that, you know they’re probably going to throw after a play like that,” reasoned Jones.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who commended the play of the defense, was especially complimentary about that sequence. “I thought the first-down play was a big play,” he said. “Ted Johnson shut down the middle and forced the runner outside. We got Henry there for about a yard loss [no gain]. We had a second and goal and I thought Willie did a good job containing the quarterback and forcing him away from the line and then Tebucky made the play.”
The Patriots took the ball at their 20 and marched to an Adam Vinatieri field goal to make it 20-0. In the first quarter, the Patriots had gone 86 yards on eight plays, the drive capped by a 10-yard pass from Brady to David Patten.
The statistics were deceiving. Start with Buffalo’s 71 percent efficiency on third down (10 for 14) compared to the Patriots’ 36 percent (4 for 11); Buffalo’s 390 total yards to New England’s 275; four Bills penalties to nine for the Patriots; and a Bills advantage in time of possession, 30:38-29:22.
The Bills scored 10 unanswered points to start the second half, and for a while it had all the makings of the Patriots’ 24-17 win over the Minnesota Vikings earlier this season. In that game, the Patriots got off to a 21-0 lead, then held on. The Patriots’ performance in that game prompted former Boston College nose tackle Chris Hovan to comment that New England didn’t look as if it wanted to play in the second half.
But before the Patriots, who have now won three straight, were accused of that once again, they caught themselves.
“We’re still making some mistakes,” said Pleasant. “We had three touchdowns called back [because of penalties] and we’re still into this thing where we get ahead and then we let down. We have to learn to finish teams off.”
One sign of the grand finish was a big hit by Otis Smith on Price after he made a catch for 6 yards with 13:35 remaining in the fourth quarter, dislodging the ball and recovering it at the Bills’ 28.
“On a play earlier in the game I had taken it away from him on the sideline, so I figured if I was ever in position again, I’d try and strip the ball,” said Smith.
The Patriots salted the game away over the next 3:17 when they made a key third and 1, bringing Adrian Klemm into the game as a sixth offensive lineman and letting Antowain Smith (17 carries, 68 yards) pound it up the middle for 5 yards. Smith ran a counter for a 4-yard touchdown.
If not for Bledsoe’s mistakes, the three touchdowns called back would have loomed larger. They were the result of two holding penalties and an illegal formation. Two of the three caused the Patriots to settle for field goals, and the third took them out of field goal range, but that was well after the horse was out of the barn.
Rookie receiver Deion Branch caught a 15-yard touchdown pass on the first series of the game, but it was negated when left tackle Matt Light was called for holding, and the Patriots settled for Vinatieri’s 39-yard field goal. Branch injured his right knee on the play and did not return. Branch had hooked up with Brady on a 41-yard pass on the first play of the game, dispelling the notion that Brady can’t hit the long ball.
Brady hit on three passes of 30 yards or longer in completing 15 for 27 for 183 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions.
In the second quarter, Charlie Weis called a trick play, on which Kevin Faulk tossed to a wide-open Brady for a 23-yard touchdown. But the Patriots were called for an illegal shift, negating the 6 points and again forcing the Patriots into a Vinatieri 46-yard field goal with 2:31 remaining in the half. That made it 20-0, New England. Weis also called a tight end reverse to Daniel Graham, but the handoff was fumbled.
Late in the game, Brady found Faulk on a 27-yard TD but holding on tight end Christian Fauria brought that one back.
“We didn’t exactly play as well in the second half as we did in the first half, but that happens in this league sometimes,” said Brady. “We had three touchdowns called back, so that hurt. We are penalizing ourselves a little bit. We made a few good plays in the second half. They really pressured us in the second half.”
But it seemed the only pressure out there was Bledsoe on himself. It was not his finest hour. In fact, it was Drewsome.