FOXBOROUGH -- One play into their season, the Patriots had a near disaster.
A breakdown in identifying a blitz left quarterback Tom Brady vulnerable as Bills linebacker Takeo Spikes surged toward his blind side. Smack! Brady was down, the ball was loose, the Bills scored a touchdown 12 seconds into play.
Brady got back up, but it was a struggle the rest of the way. The Patriots faced a 10-point halftime deficit, and heard a smattering of boos from the home crowd on their way to the locker room, before rebounding in the final two quarters for a too-close-for-comfort 19-17 victory over the plucky Bills at Gillette Stadium.
"When all of us thought about how this game could go, the scenarios and situations that could come up, I don't think anyone envisioned it going the way it did," said relieved Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "I didn't think we'd be down 7 points seconds into the game." Or trailing, 17-7, at the half, for that matter.
But the Patriots' defense rose up, with some players crediting a scheme adjustment in which the unit was more aggressive in the final two quarters. A turning point came on the first drive of the third quarter, as the Bills promptly marched down the field looking for a knockout punch, threatening to go ahead, 24-7. Facing fourth and 1 from the Patriots' 7, the Bills went for it, handing off to running back Willis McGahee over the right side.
New England's defensive line, which had been on its heels in the first half, got a solid push and linebacker Don Davis met McGahee at the line of scrimmage for no gain.
"It's just a simple goal-line play, a power play," said Davis, whose primary contributions usually come on special teams. "Everybody's running through and it's just us against them. Whoever is going to hold up, that's what it's going to be."
On the ensuing possession, the Patriots went 93 yards on 12 plays, a crucial over-the-middle 34-yard hookup to tight end Benjamin Watson keeping the drive alive on third and 9. Facing another third and 9 after advancing to the Bills' 17, Brady lofted a beautiful pass to the back right corner of the end zone, where running back Kevin Faulk made a diving grab with 2:52 left in the quarter. The touchdown, with Faulk beating one-on-one coverage from linebacker Angelo Crowell, capped a 14-point swing.
Naturally, Bills coach Dick Jauron said he regretted the decision to go for it on fourth down, but acknowledged he would "probably do it again."
After the play, the Bills gained 5 yards the rest of the game.
Belichick viewed the stop as if it were an interception or fumble recovery.
"Those plays don't go down as turnovers, but they really are," he said. "Of course, the key thing after that was we were able to do something with it offensively."
After the Patriots' defense made a three-and-out stop, the team tied the game at 17 on Stephen Gostkowski's 32-yard field goal 5:27 into the fourth quarter.
Then the defense capped it off on the Bills' next possession. With Buffalo facing third and 11 from its 8, outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain surged off the edge, forcing quarterback J.P. Losman to hold on to the ball longer than he wanted. Defensive end Ty Warren then sacked Losman for a safety, making it 19-17.
The Bills only had one more possession after that, starting at their 44 after rookie Donte Whitner picked off Brady (11 of 23 for 163 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception) with 8:26 left. Richard Seymour ended the drive with a sack, and that was it. The offense, turning mostly to a running attack that totaled 183 yards on 41 carries, then ran out the final 6:15.
The Patriots ended up holding a 12:01-2:59 edge in time of possession in the fourth quarter.
So, what was different between the Patriots' defensive performance in the first half and the second?
Belichick felt it was primarily tackling, with the Patriots cleaning up some sloppy work in that area. Yet there were other nuances, too, such as the linemen adjusting to some unexpected blocking schemes the Bills' offensive line was playing. Also, Bills receiver Lee Evans felt the Patriots increased their pressure.
Players described the atmosphere in the locker room at halftime as calm. Faulk said the coaches had a simple message to the team: "Play tough."
"It was [a] disappointment that we were in the situation we were in," added linebacker Rosevelt Colvin. "But I think that's how you develop character, to go through things like that. We're fortunate. Any time you win in the league, it's big. And guys stuck together, there was no pointing fingers."
The first half was a nightmare on several fronts, starting with the team's first offensive play. The Bills opened up the 17-7 halftime edge, the points coming on the opening strip sack that London Fletcher-Baker returned for a 5-yard score, a 53-yard field goal from Rian Lindell, and an 18-yard touchdown run by Anthony Thomas.
The Patriots' lone first-half score was a 9-yard pass to Troy Brown.
"Tough way to start," said Brady. "You just can't do that to the defense. It takes a lot to overcome that."
The fourth-down stop by Davis, however, was the spark the Patriots needed.
"That was a big turnaround, probably the biggest play of the day," said linebacker Junior Seau. "Don did a great job stuffing that run. He gets my MVP."