ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - Matt Light glanced up at the scoreboard hovering over Ralph Wilson Stadium yesterday, the most pivotal day of the Patriots season, and peeked at the scores from out of town. Over the course of the afternoon, with the results from three games, Light knew their postseason aspirations would be crushed or cemented.
As word spread through the Patriots locker room following their own victory, a 17-10 survival against the Bills, the news gave the players reason to celebrate all over again. The Jets had lost to the Falcons, and the Dolphins had lost to the Titans. Barring an unthinkable collapse, the Patriots are going back the playoffs.
In roughly three hours, the Patriots had won at any opponent’s stadium for the first time in six tries, beaten the Bills for the 13th straight time, ambushed the Bills with their best pass rush of the season, and dissolved the controversy surrounding Randy Moss. Most importantly, they shifted their postseason chances from questionable to virtually certain.
“I guess,” Light said, “it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Like their win last week over the Panthers, the victory provided little visual appeal. “It was ugly, no doubt,” Light said. The final minutes provided moments that were “nervous as it gets” on the New England sideline, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain said. But the Patriots cherished the end result.
Now 9-5, they hold a two-game edge over both the Jets and Dolphins with two games remaining. The Patriots will clinch the division with a victory in either of their last two games or if the Dolphins lose either of their final two games. The Jets, because of tiebreaking procedures, have been mathematically eliminated from winning the division.
With their playoff berth nearly secure, the sporting world will have to find something other than Moss to talk about. Following his awful performance last week and the firestorm of criticism, Moss responded by catching five passes for 70 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone early in the second quarter that put the Patriots ahead for good.
Afterward, Moss strode into his news conference, offered a defiant statement, and left without taking questions, letting his resilient message stand.
“I have been in this league for 12 years and I have been through a lot,” Moss said. “These shoulders I have on my body, you could put the Earth on it. Just to let you know, I bounce back. I appreciate it.”
Quarterback Tom Brady finished with pedestrian statistics, completing 11 of 23 passes for 115 yards, his eighth-fewest yards in a complete game and his fewest yards in a full game since he compiled 109 Dec. 17, 2006 against the Texans. The Patriots instead relied on Laurence Maroney, who ran 23 times for 81 yards and a touchdown, his ninth this season.
The Bills threatened to repay the Patriots for their miraculous comeback victory in the season’s opening week. The Patriots controlled the game throughout the second half, but a 20-yard punt return by Roscoe Parrish gave the Bills the ball on the Patriots 28-yard line with 3 minutes, 37 seconds remaining and the score 17-3.
Suddenly, after a gaggle of fans headed for the turnstiles, Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick - previously benched and re-inserted only after an injury to Trent Edwards - led a rapid scoring drive. He completed two passes, the second an 11-yard fade to Lee Evans in front of the right pylon.
The scare continued when Rian Lindell rolled an onside kick off the tee. Sam Aiken allowed the ball to bounce off his chest, and what was left of the 70,000 fans in attendance exploded when the Bills fell on the ball. The crowd hushed when it noticed a flag - Aaron Maybin had been offside.
The Bills kicked deep, and they wouldn’t get the ball again. The Patriots ran twice, setting up a crucial third and 6. They turned to the player they also turn to when things are crucial.
“We need to get the first down in that situation,” wide receiver Wes Welker said. “I am aware of it.”
Welker ran across the middle and settled 5 yards off the line. Brady drilled a pass into his gut, and Welker dived for the first down. The Patriots exhaled, and Brady knelt three times.
The Bills opened the game by attacking the Patriots’ decimated defensive line, gashing it with repeated runs. Ron Brace started in place of injured nose tackle Vince Wilfork, and Mike Wright started at defensive end for Ty Warren.
The Bills centered their game plan around the absences, tackle Jonathan Scott said. They wanted to run the ball and force the Patriots to move up their safeties. Then they would exploit one-on-one matchups on the outside with their dual deep threats, wide receivers Terrell Owens and Evans.
On the first drive, the plan worked. The Bills ran the ball on 10 of their 14 plays and grinded 9:24 off the clock before settling for a field goal.
But while the Bills may have been able to bludgeon the Patriots’ line all game, they immolated their drives with penalties, putting their offense in downs and distances that necessitated passing.
The Bills piled up 104 penalty yards in the first half - the most by any team in any half this NFL season.
Once the Bills were forced to pass, the Patriots unveiled a wrinkle that Bill Belichick dusted off from previous seasons.
On third and long, New England lined up with six defensive backs, no defensive linemen, and five linebackers strewn about the line of scrimmage, standing up and darting around like pinballs before the snap.
No Patriots defender would divulge the specific name of the scheme, but they knew how to categorize it. “It’s called organized chaos,” Adalius Thomas said.
The formation flummoxed the Bills offensive line, which was particularly susceptible to confusion. It has been besieged by injuries, and the Bills acquired guard Richie Incognito this week and immediately inserted him into the starting lineup. The alignment, Scott said, forced the Bills into protection schemes they did not want to use.
The defense energized the Patriots’ pass rush, which entered tied for 27th in the NFL in sacks with 22. The Patriots finished with six sacks, three from Banta-Cain.
The pressure also forced an interception by Fitzpatrick that killed a Bills drive at midfield.
The Patriots had a lead at halftime, which they also had in four of their first five true road games. All week long, coaches had stressed the importance of finishing games off under hostile conditions.
“It was a huge emphasis,” kick returner Matthew Slater said. “We had a `road win,’ but it wasn’t a road win to us. We needed to come out and get a road win. This is crunch time.”
This time, the Patriots held on. In the locker room, several players huddled around a television and watched overtime of the Jets and Titans. When the winning field goal sailed through, a small cheer went up.
“That,” Brady said, “was great news.”