FOXBOROUGH - If you listened to Patriots coach Bill Belichick and others speaking about the Bills last week, Drew Bledsoe was playing like the second coming of Johnny Unitas and Willis McGahee was running like Walter Payton.
At the conclusion of 60 minutes of football last night, Bledsoe looked more like a 40-something George Blanda while McGahee looked like a running back with a bad leg.
By virtue of a 29-6 win over the Bills at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots kept pace with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the best record in the AFC at 8-1. They also went two games up on the New York Jets in the East Division.
The “new-look” Bills never materialized as the Patriots scorched them with touchdown passes by Tom Brady to David Patten for 13 yards and Christian Fauria for 5, Corey Dillon’s fifth 100-yard rushing game (151 yards), and Adam Vinatieri’s five field goals.
“We didn’t play well enough to beat anybody,” lamented Bills coach Mike Mularkey. “They don’t make any mistakes. I felt like all week I got caught up in the fact that we felt good about the week we had. The players were excited about it. I wish I had an answer. They challenged us to bring it at them and we didn’t answer the call.”
Bledsoe, 8 for 19 for 76 yards and a quarterback rating of 14.3 in one of his worst games as a pro, was continually pressured and forced into bad throws after the Patriots had stopped McGahee (14 carries for 37 yards) in his tracks. Bledsoe was picked off three times, and the ultimate indignity was getting intercepted by Troy Brown in the fourth quarter on a pass intended for Eric Moulds.
“Eric Moulds was in the slot and he’s their go-to guy,” said Brown, who caught many passes from Bledsoe when he was the Patriots’ QB. “I figured they’d be throwing it to him, so I was ready.”
The only positive for the Bills, who had only eight first downs, converted no third downs in seven attempts, and were outgained in net yards, 428-125, was a 70-yard punt return in the third quarter by Jonathan Smith, which ruined New England’s shutout bid.
Bledsoe was trying to shed the image that he can’t play well against the Patriots, against whom he is now 1-5. Bledsoe has thrown 11 interceptions and five touchdown passes in games against New England. Brady is now 7-1 against Buffalo, throwing 14 touchdown passes and seven interceptions against the Bills.
While the Patriots settled for 3 points in their first two red zone visits, they managed two touchdowns in their next two, taking a 20-0 halftime lead.
“It seemed as if we were dominating the game, but we’d only come up with 3 points,” said Fauria. “We kept saying, `We should be up by more than 6-0.’ “
The first second-quarter drive went 75 yards, Brady finishing it with a 13-yard pass to Patten in the back of the end zone with 3:56 remaining in the half after Rashad Baker had fallen, leaving Patten alone.
“I ran a post route and [Brady] threw me the ball. That was a major catch for us,” said Patten.
Bledsoe then tossed his second interception, to Tedy Bruschi in the middle of the field. The linebacker ran it back 29 yards to the Bills’ 27, and four plays later, Brady found Fauria for a 5-yard score with 35 seconds remaining in the half.
“It was just one of those routes where I was in blocking and then slipped out into an open space where I could [catch] the ball,” said Fauria.
The best the Bills looked offensively was on their first possession, when they made three first downs, but then they had to punt. When the Patriots took over, Corey Dillon had six runs good for 43 yards, the big one a 30-yard burst from from the Patriot 20 to midfield on first down. The Patriots settled for a 27-yard field goal by Vinatieri.
It marked the 17th straight game the Patriots scored first.
The Bills were trying to sustain the power running game McGahee had given them the last three weeks, but it was clear the Patriots were keying on the second-year back, making Bledsoe throw it to beat them.
“We were determined not to let [McGahee] gain 100 yards on us,” said safety Rodney Harrison. “It was huge that we stopped him, and it really gave us a chance to dictate the game.”
Bledsoe was able to connect on mid-range passes, but when he tried to exploit the banged-up Patriots secondary deep he was picked off by Eugene Wilson on the final play of the first quarter at the Patriots 3.
The Patriots drove downfield, including some more hard running by Dillon, who busted loose for gains of 13 and 19 yards. Brady also hit Bethel Johnson on the fly over the middle for a 47-yard gain to the Buffalo 26.
The Bills’ defense tightened, though, forcing the Patriots to settle for a 24-yard field goal by Vinatieri, making it a 6-0 Patriots with 10:35 remaining in the second quarter.
The competitiveness of the game had ended long before the teams took the field in the second half. By the fourth quarter, many fans had departed, heading down Route 1 in their cars quite confident of the result and equally confident there was nothing the Bills could do.