ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - It had to end sometime, the Patriots’ 15-game win streak over the Bills .
But the way it ended, the way New England just imploded and seemed like it couldn’t get out of its own way for parts of the second half - that was the part that was truly surprising.
At a sun-splashed Ralph Wilson Stadium, a Buffalo-area day that bore a strong resemblance to the day of New England’s last loss to the Bills in 2003, the Patriots slumped off the field to the sounds of a raucous crowd celebrating the Bills’ last-second, come-from-behind 34-31 win.
The Bills’ victory, combined with the Jets’ loss in Oakland, means that Buffalo - yes, Buffalo - is atop the AFC East at 3-0.
“A lot of us have been here for a while playing these guys – the trainers, the equipment managers, security guards outside,’’ veteran Buffalo linebacker Chris Kelsay said. “It’s fun. I went up to [coach] Chan [Gailey] and [general manager] Buddy [Nix] after the game. I said, ‘I’m not one to ask for much, but your 24-hour rule [to celebrate wins] - I might ask for a couple more hours to enjoy this one, 26, 28 hours. Because it’s been a long time.’’
Indeed it has.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick wasn’t kidding when he told Buffalo reporters that most of the players who had been part of New England’s streak over Buffalo would be watching yesterday’s game from their couches. Of the 92 players who were in uniform for yesterday’s game, only six, three for each team, played in the 2003 season opener. Tom Brady, Matt Light, and Deion Branch suited up for the Patriots and Kelsay, punter Brian Moorman, and kicker Rian Lindell for the Bills.
And early on, it looked for all the world like the Patriots were headed for No. 16. The Bills won the toss and oddly opted to defer to the second half, putting the ball in Brady’s hands to start the game.
Brady took advantage, marching the Patriots into the end zone, covering 80 yards on nine plays. The opening drive was all about Brady and Wes Welker, as he had four catches, of 11, 33, 9, and 14 yards, the final one his first career touchdown against the Bills.
When the Bills took over, they got off to a great start. Their first play from scrimmage was a pretty pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Stevie Johnson along the sideline, a 33-yard gain that fired up the crowd.
In the leadup to the game, Johnson said of the Bills’ offense, “We gotta bring it.’’
The euphoria from that play lasted less than 60 seconds.
Fitzpatrick got his team lined up again and fired for Donald Jones. The pass was a bit high, but Jones got his hands on it and batted it up. New England’s Kyle Arrington came down with it and returned the ball well into Buffalo territory.
New England scored touchdowns on three of its first five possessions, building a 21-0 lead with six minutes to play in the second quarter.
“That’s when the mistakes started happening,’’ Branch said. “I think once we got up, now here comes a penalty to stop a drive, here’s a dropped ball, here’s an interception to stop the drive. The defense did a great job of going out there and getting the ball for us, [but] we didn’t take advantage of the opportunities at all.’’
From that point on, the Bills outscored the Patriots, 34-10.
Their first touchdown drive included a roughing the passer penalty on Rob Ninkovich that turned a 15-yard gain into a 30-yard one; the Patriots followed up Buffalo’s score by giving the ball back on Brady’s first interception, a great diving play by Bryan Scott. Buffalo turned that into a field goal, and went into the locker room down a manageable 21-10.
The Patriots’ first possession of the third quarter was over after one play: Brady looked to Chad Ochocinco, who was well-covered by Leodis McKelvin, and the pass ended up in McKelvin’s hands. Buffalo turned that turnover into a touchdown to wide-open tight end Scott Chandler at 9:34 of the third, pulling within 21-17.
New England stemmed the tide somewhat, settling for a chip-shot field goal after getting to the Buffalo 13 and failing to gain a first down or reach the end zone.
One good defensive stand from the Patriots, forcing a three-and-out, and the ship nearly looked righted.
But then came Brady’s third interception, which became yet another touchdown, one that the Patriots’ defense nearly handed to Buffalo: penalties to Kyle Love and Sergio Brown advanced the Bills 46 yards (a third, on Leigh Bodden, was declined), with Brown’s pass interference setting the Bills up at the 1-yard line.
Fred Jackson punched it in for the tying score.
On the very next play, Buffalo took the lead for the first time. Brady’s pass was tipped by defensive lineman Marcell Dareus, the Bills’ first-round pick, and Drayton Florence was in the perfect spot to grab it out of the air and race 27 yards for the touchdown.
New England answered, though it took a fourth-and-goal from the 6 to get the score. Brady looked to Welker to get it done, as he did all day - of the 30 passes he completed, 16 went to Welker, who had a team-record 217 receiving yards.
And then things got really bizarre. Buffalo took over at its 20 with 3:25 to play, and on first down from the Patriots’ 39, Fitzpatrick found Jackson on a slant route across the field. Devin McCourty tracked Jackson down just shy of the goal line, and Jackson dived forward. The play was called a touchdown but reversed on replay. After the replay, Belichick curiously called his second timeout.
The Bills had first down from the 1, the Patriots had one timeout, and there was 1:43 left on the clock. The Bills took a couple of knees, there was some pushing and shoving, and finally Lindell kicked a 28-yard field goal, giving Buffalo the win it had waited so long for.
“He caught it across the middle,’’ a quiet Patriots safety Josh Barrett said. “I gotta be able to make that play. Didn’t make it. And it cost us. Cost us big-time. And, you know, they were able to get it down to the 1 like they did and run out the clock and did what they did to win the game.”
Barrett summed up New England’s late-game performance brutally, but honestly.
“It’s bad football. It’s bad football all the way around,’’ he said. “We didn’t do enough to complement each other, offensively, defensively. Just bad.’’