ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Losing is a habit, like smoking or biting your nails. Once you start engaging in such recurring activity it can be difficult to stop. You do it without even noticing, just ask the Red Sox, our own Loss Boys.
But the Patriots have been habitual winners for more than a decade. Losing, to them, feels like quitting victory cold turkey — it just fuels the craving. That was the case on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, as the Patriots appeared to be on the precipice of defeat for the third straight week — and sending our region into a frenzy. Then they lit up the Bills, habitual have-nots, like a chain smoker does a pack of Marlboros for 45 second-half points on their way to the usual romp at Ralph Wilson Stadium, this one 52-28.
It was the first time the Bills had allowed 50 points in a game since Nov. 18, 2007, when the point-a-palooza, perfect Patriots put up 56 on them on a Sunday night at the Ralph.
Trailing, 21-7, in the third quarter on Sunday following a Ryan Fitzpatrick-to-Donald Jones 68-yard score, the Patriots were staring at the prospect of their first three-game losing streak since 2002, when they dropped four straight. They answered by scoring 35 straight points to take a 42-21 lead. It was part of an offensive onslaught in which New England scored on its last seven drives, burying Buffalo under a blizzard of points.
Panic? Bill Belichick’s Patriots don’t do panic.
“Well, it wasn’t the end of the game. It was only the second half,” said tight end Rob Gronkowski, who put the Patriots up for good (28-21) with a 28-yard touchdown grab five seconds into the fourth quarter.
“We knew we were making some plays, and we just had to keep on executing. You don’t want to panic because when you panic nothing good happens from there. We just stuck with our offense and stuck with our game plan . . . It went well from there.”
There was a better chance of disgruntled replacement referees tackling Belichick than the Patriots losing three in a row. They’re inveterate victors. The Bills, who have had one winning season since 1999, are recidivist rebuilders. This division is one giant get-well card for the Patriots.
The Bills were willing participants in their demise, turning the ball over six times. Harvard grad Fitzpatrick, he of the Hideo Nomo windup, threw four interceptions, two to the 2010 version of Devin McCourty.
This game will go down as the Running of the Bills. The Patriots had two 100-yard rushers in a game for the first time since 1980, when Don Calhoun (106 yards) and Vagas Ferguson (100) turned the trick. This time, it was BenJarvus Green-Ellis clone Brandon Bolden (16 rushes, 137 yards, touchdown), an undrafted rookie out of Ole Miss, and second-year back Stevan Ridley (22 rushes, 106 yards, two touchdowns) who bulldozed the Bills.
After running for just 3 yards in the fourth quarter in last Sunday’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens, the Patriots racked up 159 yards rushing in the second half Sunday.
Ridley or Bolden may still be running as you read this.
Tom Brady even got into the act with a tying 4-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Leave that stuff to the Cam Newtons and Michael Vicks, OK, Tom.
A tip of the cap to the fellows up front for the Patriots, who without left guard Logan Mankins, cleared the way for 247 rushing yards and kept Brady (22 of 36, 340 yards, three touchdowns), who has made the Bills his personal Washington Generals, clean most of the day.
“We were down, 21-7, on the road, backs against the wall, and I thought we showed a lot of heart,” said Brady. “That’s what this team is made of. We’re going to battle to the end. I know that.”
It certainly wasn’t perfect for the Patriots.
They trailed, 14-7, at the half. Stephen Gostkowski looked like he was having a Daniel Bard meltdown, missing field goals from 49 and 42 yards.
Gronk had a fumble that set up the Bills’ first score. The Patriots turned two Fitzpatrick first-half turnovers into . . . nothing.
Despite the offensive explosion, the play of the game came from the defense. The Patriots were on the verge of going down, 21-7, after Wes Welker fumbled at the Patriots’ 29. However, running back C.J. Spiller got stoned and stripped by Brandon Spikes on second and goal from the 4 with 1:19 left in the first half. It was one of two fumbles forced by the Patriots’ eccentric middle linebacker.
Gronk’s day, which featured a fumble, a few drops, a touchdown, and 104 receiving yards, was a microcosm of the Patriots’. They let some opportunities they usually catch slip through their mitts, they dropped the ball early, but in the end they spiked the Bills with the force of an anvil.
“They are the defending [AFC] champions for a reason,” said Bills coach Chan Gailey. “They are good. They are. They are a good football team. They played well today. We did not measure up.”
There is no need to stress out about Belichick and Co., after a pair of last-second kick losses to Arizona and Baltimore that had them off to a 1-2 start and below .500 for the first time since 2003.
The Patriots (2-2) are still the class of the AFC East, which appears to be as soft as a pillow and about as threatening.
The Jets don’t have their best cornerback, and have two quarterbacks who can’t throw. The Dolphins have a rookie quarterback and the highlight of their season looks to have been being on HBO. The Bills have talent but not a winning temperament.
The Patriots have a habit of winning.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.