ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - Tom Brady walked out of the Patriots locker room and walked to the podium in the interview room at Ralph Wilson Stadium smiling, and why not? Though he’s not supposed to think about it, the team he quarterbacks had just won its 18th straight game, a 31-17 triumph over the Bills, tying the record for the most consecutive wins including postseason games.
In some locker rooms that would have been cause for champagne streaming through the air, a celebration of a remarkable record that, if they beat Miami Sunday, will be all theirs. Miami also won 18 straight including the postseason, in 1972 and ‘73, including an undefeated ‘72 season.
But in New England’s locker room, the only thing the players were doing while getting dressed was trying to dodge the media and questions about the streak.
“Better standing up here now than last year [after a 31-0 loss],” Brady joked. “We had a lot of penalties and missed opportunities, but we settled in in the second half. They have a very good team.”
Once again, when it really counted, in a game that was tied at 17 and anyone’s to win for three-plus quarters, the Patriots seized the moment. In the end they played like Super Bowl champions; the Bills played like a team in disarray and likely heading for some major changes, perhaps even the unseating of Drew Bledsoe at quarterback.
The Patriots were confident if it came down to the end, they could rattle Bledsoe. While they spared him most of the game, they blitzed him into oblivion in the fourth quarter. If they were banking on Bledsoe’s teammates not being able to bail him out, they were right.
“We just wanted the ball to come out fast,” said Patriots free safety Rodney Harrison, who was relentless at the end. “Our front guys really did a wonderful job putting pressure on Drew. We didn’t play very well in the first half, but in the second half we made some adjustments and we were able to pull out a very tough divisional win in a very tough place to play.”
The game was iced with New England ahead, 24-17, late in the fourth quarter. The Bills drove to the Patriots’ 17 where Bledsoe took a fourth-and-3 snap, faked a handoff to Travis Henry, and never saw Tedy Bruschi bear down on him, unabated. Bruschi knocked the ball loose and Richard Seymour picked it up and lumbered 68 yards for the clinching score.
“I’m just glad I got into the end zone,” Seymour said. “I’m not used to running that far, but you always like scoring touchdowns when you’re a defensive player.”
The Bills were running a bootleg for Bledsoe, believing it was a play the Patriots would least expect.
They were probably right, except it looked like Bledsoe was merely dropping back and starting to roll right before Henry allowed Bruschi to come clean and Bruschi knocked the ball loose.
Buffalo wide receiver Eric Moulds had a different take on the play. “It was a situation where I think Travis went the wrong way,” said Moulds. “Drew was supposed to hand it off to him, but Travis went the wrong way, and Drew never really got a chance to put the ball away. The guy hit him, made the play, and [they] scored.”
Henry, who ran well for 98 yards on 24 carries, had back-to-back regrettable plays. He tripped on a third and 2 from the Patriot 16 before he could hit what looked to be a hole and get the first down, then missed the blocking assignment.
Of the fourth-down play, Henry said, “I think it was a run play, and I was faking the run, so I don’t know what happened, or why [Bruschi] came up the middle like that, but it was miscommunication somewhere.”
Bledsoe was more direct. “If we had executed the play correctly, hopefully Bruschi would have tackled Travis on the play fake and it would have been there,” he said.
With an 0-3 start in his first NFL head coaching job, the Bills’ Mike Mularkey lost his composure when a reporter asked whether it was a good idea to run Bledsoe on a rollout.
“I think it is,” Mularkey said. “Knowing what I know compared to what you know.”
Earlier in the final quarter, the Patriots went on an 80-yard scoring drive, helped by another Bills brain burp. Buffalo had stopped the drive and forced Adam Vinatieri to kick a 31-yard field goal, but on the attempt Rashad Baker was offside and it allowed the Patriots to continue the drive. Brady later found Daniel Graham on a 2-yard touchdown pass, with Graham making a nice snatch low to the ground.
Could the outcome have been reversed if a couple of plays had gone differently? Absolutely. Ask London Fletcher what he was thinking when he picked up a loose ball in the fourth quarter after New England’s David Givens seemed to catch a pass but then had the ball stripped. Fletcher ran it down the right sideline, but was caught by the Patriots’ Bethel Johnson and tried to lunge into the end zone. At that point, the Patriots’ Stephen Neal blasted Fletcher, and the ball went flying through the end zone for a touchback, which would have been Patriots’ ball. The Bills threw a replay flag and got the officials eventually to reverse the Givens fumble to an incomplete pass. However, if Fletcher had just gone down at the 2, the Bills might have been able to tie it because the Patriots were out of challenges.
Fletcher left the locker room without speaking to the media.
The Patriots had a bad day on special teams, allowing a 98-yard return by Terrence McGee with 1:26 remaining in the first quarter, tying the game at 10. They also allowed a 34-yard run on a muffed snap by punter Brian Moorman, who grabbed the loose ball and ran right to the Patriot 41, from where Bledsoe made his best play of the game - a scoring strike to Moulds that gave the Bills a 17-10 lead with 2:43 remaining in the half. The Patriots then tied it on a 30-yard pass from Brady to David Patten with 1:28 left before intermission.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Patriots had decided they didn’t want to kick to McGee, and Vinatieri tried to hit the ball to the side but it hooked out of bounds. The ball came out to the Buffalo 40, but Bledsoe and the Bills went three and out.
Brady was pleased to take a knee and get to the locker room with a tie, a far cry from how the game started. New England began the contest by marching 77 yards on nine plays, capped by Corey Dillon’s 15-yard run right up the middle.
Dillon, who ended with 79 yards on 19 carries, also fumbled at the Bills 2 in the second quarter on a big hit by Chris Kelsay.
Which is why the Patriots were content to take their chances in the second half, where they have pulled it out so many times in their 18-game streak.