FOXBOROUGH - There’s no reward for style points in the AFC East standings. The Patriots’ methodical 20-10 victory over the Buffalo Bills yesterday at Gillette Stadium and the New York Jets’ 47-3 dismantling of the St. Louis Rams 210 miles to the south are equal in the standings - just like the teams that posted them.
The Patriots’ prosaic victory put them in a first-place tie with the Jets at 6-3 and the teams will meet at Gillette Thursday night, when they extend their football blood feud in prime time with first place on the line.
“We’re in first place in the division and that’s where we want to be,” said quarterback Matt Cassel. “We’ve got a big ballgame coming up this week, and we’ve got a quick turnaround. Everybody is excited about it. It’s against the Jets, and we’re always excited to play the Jets. It should be a big challenge for us. We’ll be up for the challenge, I’m sure.”
It’s best to move on to the Jets.
The Patriots won a game that was best defined by the fact that before BenJarvus Green-Ellis scored the clinching 1-yard touchdown with 1:57 left on the 19th play of a 92-yard drive to give the Patriots a 20-3 lead, tight end David Thomas tripped coming out of the huddle and landed on his backside with a thud.
Much like Thomas, the Bills, who were missing four starters, including safety Donte Whitner, fell flat in Foxborough, as the Patriots defeated them for the 10th straight time.
The details of the workman-like win were rookie running back Green-Ellis having the first 100-yard rushing performance of his career (26 carries for 105 yards); Cassel, whose only mistake was a fourth-quarter fumble, going 23 of 34 for 234 yards through the air and rushing for a 13-yard score in the first half, and the defense putting the clamps on quarterback Trent Edwards and the Buffalo offense, allowing only 168 yards of total offense, a season-best.
It all added up to an important win for the Patriots in the start of a stretch of three straight games in the division.
“It’s mid-November, and it’s a race for the AFC East and these are the way the games are going to be,” said linebacker Tedy Bruschi, part of a defense that didn’t allow a play longer than 15 yards. “They’re going to go down to the fourth quarter. The Jets are tough, the Bills are tough, the Dolphins are tough. Everybody is tough, so it’s going to be like this from here on out.”
The Patriots took the early lead on Cassel’s first-quarter scamper. But the key play of the drive happened two plays earlier when Cassel hit Wes Welker with a 21-yard completion to the Buffalo 17.
On replays it appeared that Welker, who had 10 catches for 107 yards, did not get both feet inbounds with control of the ball, and Buffalo coach Dick Jauron threw the challenge flag. However, the officials didn’t see Jauron throw it.
The first of Edwards’s two interceptions helped extend the Patriots’ lead to 10-0. Ellis Hobbs picked off a pass intended for Lee Evans at the Buffalo 38 and returned it to the 34. That set up the first of Stephen Gostkowski’s two field goals, a 32-yarder with 13:25 left in the half.
The Patriots clearly flummoxed Edwards, who has now thrown five interceptions in his last three games, holding him to 13 of 23 for 120 yards, with a late 14-yard touchdown pass to James Hardy, and taking away Evans, who had just two catches for 22 yards.
That allowed them to hold the Bills to just 10 points, even though Buffalo’s average starting position was its 36.
Buffalo’s only 3 points of the first half came after Gostkowski booted a kickoff out of bounds, giving Buffalo the ball at its 40. Even that 25-yard field goal by Rian Lindell came after the Patriots defense stuffed Marshawn Lynch twice on goal-to-go from the 4.
“We knew what they wanted to do,” said Hobbs. “We knew what type of quarterback Edwards is. We knew how they’re trying to execute their offense and who they want to go to. I think every time when we go out there on defense our game plan is to take away what you do best and make you or force you to do the things that you don’t do so well. I think we did a great job of that.”
The Patriots boosted their 10-3 halftime lead - it could have been more but Gostkowski missed a 49-yard field goal late in the half - to 13-3 on the opening possession of the second half on a 37-yard field goal.
New England led by that margin heading into the fourth quarter after Deltha O’Neal picked off Edwards at the Patriots’ 39 on the penultimate play of the third quarter. However, Cassel gave the ball right back to Buffalo - his only mistake - as he tried to get a pass off while being sacked by Marcus Stroud and safety George Wilson, who recovered the ball at the Bills’ 44.
The Bills couldn’t convert on the turnover and had to punt with 11:05 to go. They didn’t see the ball again until there was 1:57 left in the game, as the Patriots imposed their will and secured their place atop the AFC East with the methodical 19-play TD march.
The drive matched the longest scoring effort in terms of plays in franchise history, a 19-play sojourn in 2002 against the Jets.
“That last drive was awesome and took a lot of time off the clock and ended up getting 7 points,” said coach Bill Belichick.
The drive was indicative of the game - a gritty, grind-it-out display of proficient football that produced the desired result in less than desirable fashion.
That’s how the Patriots have reached the apex of the AFC East this season.