The Patriots had fallen behind, 16-7. They needed two scores, but their offense was struggling, and their defense seemingly couldn't stop Bills running back Willie McGahee from gaining first downs at will.
With defeat looming in a game they could scarcely afford to lose, however, the Patriots dug down deep and responded like the team that has won three of the last four Super Bowls. They got a much-needed takeaway sandwiched between two quick-strike touchdown drives that were fueled by a Patriots staple -- long passes from quarterback Tom Brady to wide receiver Deion Branch. Before Sunday, the Patriots had gone more than three full games without a takeaway.
"We are really proud of our guys," said Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick. "They hung in there down by nine… And to come back and then get the lead and even have the ball with a couple of minutes to go, a lot of things went in our favor."
Now the Patriots stand at 4-3 with a one-game lead over the Miami Dolphins in the AFC East, and they might have regained some of the swagger that they had lost in recent defeats to the Denver Broncos and the San Diego Chargers.
And with the return of star linebacker Tedy Bruschi, the team also began the reconstruction of a defense that has been crippled by the loss of five starters. The unit struggled against the Buffalo's rushing attack on Sunday, but better days should be ahead as Bruschi plays himself back into form, star lineman Richard Seymour gets back on the field, and the rebuilt backfield finds its identity.
Before rallying in the game's final 10 minutes, the Patriots had been slip-sliding towards what would have been a painful defeat. The Bills had come to Foxboro with a 3-4 mark and the NFL's second-worst record in stopping opposing runners. Yet, the Patriots couldn't get anything going on offense. They gained only 191 yards in the first three quarters and had allowed the Bills a two-to-one advantage in time of possession.
With just over 10 minutes remaining, the Bills were threatening to take a 20-7 lead, but the Patriots knuckled down and sacked Bills QB Kelly Holcomb on third-and eight, and the Bills settled for a 41-yard Rian Lindell field goal that made the score 16-7.
The game then turned quickly. Starting at their own 39-yard line after a short kickoff, the Patriots went to work. Brady hit Branch on a 37-yard strike down the right sideline that put the Patriots on the Buffalo 24-yard line. Five plays later, RB Corey Dillon scored on a one-yard plunge, and the score was 16-14.
The Bills could have put the Patriots back in a hole by running off another long, time-consuming drive when they got the ball back with seven minutes to go, but Patriots LB Rosevelt Colvin sacked Holcomb and forced a fumble on Buffalo's second play. When Colvin recovered the fumble, the Patriots had the ball on the 23-yard line with 6:14 left to play.
"That was a big one, no doubt about it," said Belichick. "We were still behind at that point, so that was a big strip sack."
On the next play from scrimmage, Brady hit Branch again for 22 yards, setting up another one-yard touchdown run by Dillon.
The lead looked tenuous when the Bills took possession at their own 47-yard line after a 24-yard kick return and a 15-yard personal foul penalty on New England's Matt Chatham, but the defense turned the Bills back at the New England 38-yard line.
Prior to the fourth quarter, the New England defense had had a tough day, despite the return of Bruschi. The Bills had run 54 plays to New England's 34 and held the ball for 30:09 (compared to 14:51 for the Pats). Buffalo had controlled the game by handing the ball to McGahee, who carried the ball 23 times for 115 yards in the first three quarters. The steady running of the former U. of Miami star had kept the Bills out of third-and-long situations and enabled Holcomb to pass conservatively.
The Patriots' defense, which had limped into the Buffalo game 28th in the NFL in points allowed and dead last in red-zone defense, had some very encouraging moments. Safety Eugene Wilson delivered two big hits in the first half: first knocking McGahee backwards after a five-yard run, then stopping Eric Moulds short of a first down on a third-down completion.
Fellow third-year DB Asante Samuel also made an excellent takedown on McGahee as he tried to get to the right sideline on a second-half run.
More encouraging still were the unit's two takeaways. In addition to Colvin's forced fumble, there was an interception by Samuel in the third quarter when the Bills were leading 10-7.
With Bruschi back on the field, the Patriots played four linebackers from the Super Bowl XXXIX team (Bruschi, Colvin, Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest) together for the first time this season.
The defense was once again playing without Seymour, who missed his third straight game with a knee injury. Also missing were cornerbacks Tyrone Poole (placed on injured reserve this week) and Randall Gay (ankle) and safeties Guss Scott (placed on injured reserve this week) and James Sanders. Recent free agent signee Arturo Freeman started at strong safety -- a position where the team lost three starters in one month: Rodney Harrison was lost for the season on Sept. 25. Scott replaced Harrison and was lost for the season on Oct. 9. Sanders replaced Scott and was injured in the Denver game on Oct. 16.
Cornerback Duane Starks got burned badly only once in this game, which is an improvement over his recent performances. If he can step his game up a little and Freeman can settle in (and stay healthy) at strong safety, the defense might stabilize in the weeks ahead.
Bruschi finished the game with seven tackles. Vrabel, playing next to Bruschi at middle linebacker, led the team with 14 tackles. Wilson had 10.
New England lost a key offensive player in the first half when RB Patrick Pass went down with a leg injury. Pass had started in place of Dillon and gained 40 yards on four plays. After Pass was hurt, Dillon entered the game and rushed for 72 yards on 18 carries.
Brady threw only 21 times, completing 14 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown.
Branch led Patriots' receivers with 92 yards and a touchdown on only three catches. David Givens had seven catches for 58 yards.
New England's kick coverage team was outstanding holding Buffalo's NFL-leading return man, Terrence McGee, to 22 yards on two returns.
The Patriots have a tough game next Monday night against the 7-0 Indianapolis Colts in Foxborough.