FOXBOROUGH -- A certain celebration was required.
After all, how many times does a star player return to a championship football team after suffering a stroke?
Before a full house, with the much beloved Tedy Bruschi back in uniform for the first time since the Super Bowl, the Buffalo Bills should have been party favors, performing clowns at this festive gathering of Patriots faithful.
Dispatched by the NFL to appear at Gillette Stadium last night an ideal example of being at the wrong place at the wrong time the Bills attempted to ignore their prescribed appointment.
But alas, the Patriots did what the Patriots do, claiming a 21-16 win so that the welcome back party was indeed a party.
The emotional return of Bruschi to the roaring approval of the sellout crowd of 68,756 when his was the last name called during the pregame introductions would have meant little without the win.
“It was a game we needed to win,” said Deion Branch, who had two receptions of more than 30 yards. “Any way we could win it, we needed to win it.”
Running back Corey Dillon returned to action after missing the last game with a sprained ankle, to score two touchdowns in less than a two-minute span in the fourth period to lift the Patriots to the come-from-behind victory.
The Patriots (4-3) avoided their first two-game losing streak in three years with the victory in their first game AFC East contest of the season. New England is the only team in the division with a winning record. Buffalo dropped to 3-5.
“It was a good win for our football team,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “I think everyone was happy to see [Bruschi] out there. But we can’t just rely on him to show up, and everything falls into place.”
With Bruschi in the lineup for the first time this season, nearly nine months after suffering a mild stroke, the Patriots defense still wasn’t in championship form, allowing 394 yards. But for the first time this season, it held an opponent under 20 points, and the Patriots forced two turnovers, the first time this season they have come away with more than one in a game.
“That was a big issue,” said safety Eugene Wilson, who had 10 tackles. “It was something we put emphasis on all week. It was great to get that many turnovers because it’s something we’ve been lacking.”
Trailing, 16-7, with 10 minutes left, the Patriots played with a sense of urgency on offense that was often absent on this night.
Branch’s leaping grab for 37 yards that withstood a replay challenge by the Bills was the key play in a six-play, 61-yard trek. Dillon scored from 1 yard out to close the gap to 16-14 with just over seven minutes remaining.
Now it was time for the much-maligned Patriots defense to make a stand.
Bruschi, a team captain, was the first defender to run off the sideline, and he stopped Willis McGahee (31 carries, 136 yards) on first down after a 3-yard gain. It was Bruschi’s seventh tackle of the night, and as was the case with each other one, the crowd shouted “Brew! Brew!” in unison.
On the next play, Rosevelt Colvin ran past guard Bennie Anderson and crushed Buffalo quarterback Kelly Holcomb. Not only did Colvin get the sack, but he also forced a fumble and recovered the loose ball at the Bills’ 23.
Two plays later, Dillon was pounding his way into the end zone once more from the 1 with the game-winner.
“That’s something that’s been indicative of our team in the past,” Bruschi said of Colvin’s strip-sack. “You don’t know who’s going to do it, but somebody’s going to make a big play to win the game.
“You never know when it’s going to happen.”
A pair of penalties on the ensuing kickoff a tripping call on Larry Izzo (which was declined) and a personal foul on Matt Chatham (which was accepted) set the Bills up 3 yards shy of midfield. New England allowed only a single first down, though, and recent signee Hank Poteat finished the Bills off by stopping Eric Moulds for no gain on fourth and 8 from the Patriots’ 40 with 1:56 left.
Bruschi’s return led to the benching of the inside linebacker tandem of Monty Beisel and Chad Brown, who started the first five games of the season.
Bruschi started with Mike Vrabel on the inside, with Willie McGinest and Colvin outside. Beisel was on the bench, and Brown inactive.
The Patriots describe their improved defense as a “work in progress” after allowing the Bills to hold onto the ball for 39 minutes, 20 seconds.
“It wasn’t good enough,” McGinest said. “I’m not going to say that [it was].
“We have to get off the field on third down and get the ball back to our offense.”
Tom Brady had a quietly efficient night, completing 14 of 21 passes for 199 yards, and Dillon had a solid outing with 72 yards on 18 attempts on his tender ankle.
Buffalo had 394 yards to the Patriots’ 273, but New England was stingy in the red zone, holding the Bills without a touchdown in three trips inside the 20. The Patriots entered the game last in the league in red zone defense.
“That’s the bottom line,” Belichick said. “They got the ball with a short field a couple of times and we held them to field goals. It takes a lot of pressure off the offense when you don’t have to go out there and score 35 points.”