ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - Troy Brown’s been in the NFL for 10 years, so when he said yesterday, “It looked like the old days,” that could have been interpreted as the early or mid 1990s. But he was talking about last year, when the Patriots got in gear in Game 11 and never looked back.
“We had a sense of urgency,” the Patriots receiver said after New England’s 38-7 thrashing of the Buffalo Bills. “We told ourselves we needed to get off to a better start. We needed to get Antowain [Smith] the football, and we needed to get back to the things that made us Super Bowl champions.”
Coach Bill Belichick seemed to have that feeling, slapping players on the back and handing out uncharacteristic attaboys to everyone in sight as he left the field.
He even held up his trot to accept Drew Bledsoe’s handshake and he stressed the win wasn’t about the hype surrounding Bledsoe, it was about winning a game.
“The team had lost four in a row. A lot has come down on them,” said Belichick. “It was a real struggle. Offensively we were just able to execute well. We converted third downs. Antowain ran well. It wasn’t about anything but trying to move the ball against a good football team.”
The Patriots (4-4) are hoping for some help from Green Bay tonight against Miami. A loss would leave Miami at 5-3.
“Oh we never thought we were out of it anyway,” said Brown. “Hopefully we can get some help, but we still play Miami and Buffalo again. We can control things on our own.”
The Patriots pressed the edit button and corrected everything that ailed them during this cloudy, dark afternoon.
Tom Brady, who had thrown seven interceptions in his previous three games, had none. He threw four touchdown passes, completed 23 of 27 attempts for 310 yards, and had a rating of 154.1. He outplayed former teammate Bledsoe, who hit on 28 of 45 passes for 302 yards, a touchdown, and an interception.
Smith cracked the 100-yard plateau for the first time this season, carrying 29 times for 111 yards and a score. He also caught five passes, two for touchdowns.
The Patriots snapped their five-game streak of allowing a 100-yard rusher, limiting Travis Henry to just 53 yards on 11 carries. They sacked Bledsoe four times and hit him plenty more, using a steady diet of blitzes as defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel unveiled a scheme similar to one that stymied Bledsoe in the 1994 wild-card playoff game (Jan. 1, 1995) won by Belichick’s Browns, 20-13. The plan called for four linebackers staying upright at the snap, thus disguising their actions.
The Patriots, who had been struggling on third down offensively and defensively, converted 67 percent (8 for 12), while holding the Bills to a 36-percent conversion rate (4 for 11).
The Patriots, who took a chance by trading Bledsoe to a divisional rival, won the first battle. The opponent seemed to matter little in the jubilant New England locker room.
“This is the kind of feeling we used to have in here,” said offensive lineman Matt Light. “It’s been a while. We’ve been beating ourselves for so long, that to have this type of complete team performance was exactly what this team needed.”
New England’s defensive backs did a solid job taking receivers Eric Moulds and Peerless Price out of the game. Bledsoe’s favorite targets combined for 14 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown.
“We pressured them at the line of scrimmage, tried to throw them off a bit,” said Ty Law, who intercepted a Bledsoe offering intended for Moulds late in the game. “We tried to put pressure on their offensive line to pick up things we were trying to do.”
For the first time in a while, the Patriots won the battles in the trenches.
“We thought we had some mismatches on the tape we saw, but you have to go out there and make it happen,” said Patriots center Damien Woody. “We made it happen.”
That’s why when Willie McGinest was asked about the defense’s performance, he said, “Hey, it was the offense that got us going right off the bat. They set the tone.”
Brady’s first big play on the first series was a 19-yard toss to Kevin Faulk on third and 10 to the Bills 49. It marked the return of the short-pass offense. Six yards to David Patten. Fourteen yards to Troy Brown and finally, 5 yards to tight end Christian Fauria completing an eight-play, 68-yard drive.
Brady completed his first 10 passes in the first half, and nine of his first 10 in the second half. Twelve of his first 16 passes were screens or short swing passes.
The Bills responded by driving to the New England 18, where they faced a third and 2. That’s when Ted Johnson, who had dined with Bledsoe Saturday night, blitzed up the middle and dropped his former teammate for a 14-yard loss. Mike Hollis, who is normally money in the bank, came up short on a 50-yard field goal attempt.
“That was a big mistake on my part,” said Bledsoe. “I have to be able to get rid of the ball so that we have a shorter field goal for Mike.”
After exchanging punts, the Patriots, who scored on four of their first six possessions, then doubled the lead. The play-calling was similar to that on the first drive, some short-to-medium passes and a good dose of Smith. Brady capped the drive by hitting Smith from 13 yards out.
Undaunted, Bledsoe moved the Bills to the New England 6 on the ensuing possession. It was first and goal when Bills coach Gregg Williams declined to challenge the referee’s call that tight end Jay Riemersma was out of bounds when he caught Bledsoe’s pass near the corner of the end zone. After another incomplete pass, the drive ended with Hollis missing a 25-yard gimme as holder Brian Moorman bungled the snap and had the laces facing Hollis.
The Bills appeared to be mimicking the play of the Patriots the previous four games. They committed bad penalties that killed momentum. Buffalo seemed to have the Patriots stopped on a third and 14 at the New England 16 when Brady overthrew David Givens. But Chris Watson bumped into Givens and was called for interference. It resulted in a first down at the 40, and from there the Patriots pounded the ball down the Bills’ throats to the 28 before Adam Vinatieri nailed a 46-yard field goal to make it 17-0.
Bledsoe, however, made it interesting, leading the Bills to their only score with just 10 seconds remaining in the first half. He marched them 80 yards, converted a key fourth down with a quarterback sneak just before the two-minute warning at the Bills’ 39. He completed key passes to Centers (17 yards), Josh Reed (21 yards), and Price (14 yards) before finding Price open in the end zone from a yard out, making it a 17-7.
The Bills’ fate seemed to be sealed by a decision by Williams in the third quarter. The Bills, who started the second half with the ball, faced a fourth and 2 on the Patriots 32 and Williams elected to punt.
Moorman got off a 15-yard punt to the 17. The Patriots then marched down the field, capped by a quick toss to Faulk, who rambled down the sideline 45 yards to make it 24-7 with 7:33 remaining in the third quarter.
Smith tallied a pair of garbage-time touchdowns to seal the win and the Patriots managed to make their coach happy.
“We put a smile on his face,” said Law. “I guess he must have liked the way we played.”