FOXBOROUGH — Leading the Bills by 3 points and with less than eight minutes to play, the Patriots’ offense took the field on Sunday with a sense of “We’ve been here before” hanging over Gillette Stadium.
Trying to protect late leads with clock-busting drives hasn’t worked well this season, the team’s failure to do exactly that notably evident in last-minute losses at Baltimore and Seattle, both of whom capitalized on the Patriots’ inability to close out games.
Given yet another chance, the Patriots earned partial credit. They took nearly six minutes off the clock, but came away with just a field goal, doubling their lead to 6. That gave Buffalo an opportunity to steal the game with a touchdown. Devin McCourty’s end-zone interception guaranteed that wouldn’t happen, letting the offense take solace in doing a decent job when the game needed to be won. Not a great job. But on this day, good enough.
“Yeah, it was great until the very end. We have to make sure we’re finishing on those plays and getting into the end zone,” receiver Wes Welker said. “We made it a lot tougher situation than it needed to be.”
Holding a 34-31 lead and 7:40 remaining, Welker and Co. took over at their 32-yard line after a solid kickoff return by Julian Edelman. At the time, Buffalo’s offense was humming: an 84-yard touchdown drive, a 93-yard drive that ended with a fumble at the Patriots’ 1, then a 45-yard touchdown drive to draw within 3. The last thing the Patriots wanted to do was give the Bills the ball right back.
They didn’t, putting together their longest drive of the game, both in number of plays (14) and time of possession (5:41).
As with any lengthy drive, a handful of positive plays stood out, and this one included three. The first was on the first of two third-down conversions, the Patriots needing 5 yards from their 37. With both punt teams ready to take the field, quarterback Tom Brady found Brandon Lloyd for 12 yards, extending the drive and sending the clock toward six minutes left.
Two of Lloyd’s five catches came on the drive, none bigger than the 12-yarder.
“I’m very much aware of the importance of the situation,” Lloyd said. “They’re all important, when we get our number called we want to make the plays.”
Welker’s number was called four plays later. On second and 10 from Buffalo’s 40, Brady hit Welker in the right flat, a receiver screen starting to be set up in front of him.
But Welker reversed course and came back toward the left side of the field, getting some key blocks and taking it 23 yards before going out of bounds, down to the Bills’ 17 as the time remaining read 4:39.
A great read — and a bit of a gamble — by Welker, who finished with six catches for 74 yards.
“It wasn’t designed that way, trust me,” Welker said. “As soon as I started I was thinking, ‘Man, this better work, or else I’ll be in a bunch of trouble,’ because that’s pretty much the last thing you want to do on that play. Luckily it worked out and we were able to get a good play off it.”
The second third-down conversion came with 3:14 left and the Patriots at Buffalo’s 12. Needing 5 yards, running back Stevan Ridley got the surprise call, running 10 yards up the middle for a first down to the Bills’ 2.
That’s when things stalled. Ridley lost 2 yards on first down, then was whistled for a false start, moving the Patriots back 5 more yards. Two incomplete passes brought on Stephen Gostkowski, who kicked his third field goal and doubled his team’s lead.
The field goal ended the Patriots’ most important drive, almost six minutes after it started. A game-clinching touchdown wasn’t the result, but keeping a surging Bills offense off the field might have been just as important. It brought mixed reaction in the postgame locker room.
“You just want the clock to go to zero in the four-minute offense. You’re supposed to end the game,” Lloyd said. “There’s nothing gratifying about what we did. We have a lot to work on. We won the game, [but] it wasn’t pretty.”
Said Ridley: “We moved the ball when we had to. There were some times that we stalled out, but there were times that we came through and did what we had to do, and that was to finish this game the right way.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.