FOXBOROUGH — Once again it came down to the final minute, and once again the Patriots lost players on offense to injury.
The result, however, remained the same: The Patriots won, and remained unbeaten.
They completed a regular-season sweep of the Buffalo Bills, who were making their first “Monday Night Football” appearance in six years.
The Patriots didn’t need a last-second field goal this time. They never trailed, in fact, beating the Bills at Gillette Stadium, 20-13, to improve to 10-0 for just the second time in franchise history.
It’s a good omen: Of the 14 teams before this season to start 10-0 since the NFL-AFL merger, nine advanced to the Super Bowl, and six won it all.
In a game that took more than 3½ hours to complete and was filled with questionable calls by the referee crew, a third-down pass by the Bills in the waning seconds netted 16 yards. They needed 18, and the clock ran out.
“Always a hard-fought division game with Buffalo. Always good to beat Buffalo,” said coach Bill Belichick. “I don’t think that was our best. But we made enough plays. We’ll take it.”
There’s always a bit of a circus element when Rex Ryan is involved — he ceded the division title to the Patriots last week, then had a testy teleconference with Patriots media members — and Monday’s game was no different. Heck, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady even used “Rex Ryan!” as a presnap call on occasion.
An inadvertent whistle potentially cost the Patriots an even bigger play than the 29-yard gain they were credited with on their first possession of the second half. On first down from their 31, Brady hit Danny Amendola, who caught the pass at about the instant the whistle was blown. Bills cornerback Ronald Darby, who was in coverage, stopped playing as soon as the whistle blew, although Amendola had a step on him, and was in line for an even longer play.
The whistle negated Amendola adding to the 14-yard gain he earned at the spot of the catch, but the play became a 29-yard gain when Ryan was penalized 15 yards for coach’s interference. After driving to the Buffalo 36, Stephen Gostkowski missed a 54-yard field goal attempt, snapping a streak of 31 straight makes dating to last season. Combined with extra points, it was his first missed kick of the season.
“It’s just one of those plays. I really don’t know what happened,” said Brady, who completed 20 of 39 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown, facing consistent pressure from the Bills’ defensive front.
Buffalo took advantage of the missed field goal and drove 56 yards in five plays. LeSean McCoy scored on a 27-yard run, and Dan Carpenter’s extra point tied the score at 10.
After the teams traded three-and-outs, the Patriots’ go-ahead drive included a pair of completions to Amendola, who had his second 100-yard receiving game of the season in the absence of Julian Edelman, who suffered a broken foot last week. Amendola, who caught nine passes for 117 yards, left the game in the third quarter with a knee injury and did not return. Fellow receiver Aaron Dobson also left the game, with an ankle injury, and did not return, leaving the Patriots with just two receivers: Brandon LaFell, and Chris Harper.
Amendola’s 41-yard reception pushed the ball to the Buffalo 6, and the Patriots scored on the next play on a run by James White, his second touchdown of the game. The Patriots went quick without a huddle, and Buffalo defensive end Jerry Hughes was 20 yards offsides when the ball was snapped. The Patriots declined the penalty; the touchdown and Gostkowski’s point after made it 17-10.
“We’ve lost quite a few guys over the last three weeks,” Brady said referring to Edelman, Dion Lewis, and now potentially Amendola and Dobson. “I think we’ll just keep fighting and find a way to win. It’s good to win against a good defense. Whoever’s in there we’ve got to have confidence in what they’re doing.”
With the return of a pair of offensive linemen, the Patriots actually had some extra bodies up front. Marcus Cannon had missed the past four games with a toe injury, but got the start at left tackle, and had a rough return (three penalties). Sebastian Vollmer, who missed the previous game with a concussion, didn’t start, but came on in the second series at right tackle, and played there for the remainder of the game.
Suiting up an extra offensive lineman — the Patriots went with seven, after playing dangerously thin with six the past four games — even gave David Andrews a chance to take a break. Andrews, a rookie center, had been the only member of the team who had played every snap on offense. He started at center and played the first two series, but came out for the third in favor of Bryan Stork, who played nearly the remainder of the game.
Another streak was in serious jeopardy late in the first half. The Patriots had scored points in every quarter since being shut out in the first quarter of the season opener against Pittsburgh. With a 35-yard field goal by Gostkow-ski in the first quarter, the Patriots’ streak reached 36 consecutive quarters with points.
Taking over at their 38-yard-line in the final minute of the first half, game tied at 3, the Patriots were in danger of seeing their quarters-with-points streak finally end. But Brady hit Amendola on an 18-yard gain to cross midfield, then connected with LaFell on a sliding 24-yard completion, a catch that was upheld in review.
Two incompletions set up third and 10 from the Buffalo 20. White, lined up to the right of Brady in the backfield, flared out and caught a pass in the right flat at the 17. He slipped through a tackle attempt by safety Corey Graham, and waltzed into the end zone for the first touchdown of his NFL career.
White’s score gave the Patriots a 10-3 halftime lead, a positive sign for the hosts. The Patriots had won their past 79 home games when leading at halftime, a streak that even predates Gillette Stadium. The last visiting team to beat the Patriots in a regular-season game after trailing at halftime was Miami, on Dec. 24, 2000.
The Bills (5-5) can claim one victory: By getting shut out in the fourth quarter, the Patriots’ NFL record of scoring points in 38 consecutive quarters ended.
Beat up a little and now facing a shortened holiday week before playing in another prime-time game on Sunday at Denver, the Patriots took another step toward history. They’ll gladly take the win. Especially since it came over Ryan.