FOXBOROUGH – Any NFL player or coach will tell you that there are no easy wins at this level.
But Sunday at Gillette Stadium, the Buffalo Bills seemed to make things a bit easier for the Patriots to beat them.
On New England's first drive of the game, for instance – a 7-play, 71-yard march that culminated in a Matt CasselTD run – Cassel hit wide receiver Wes Welkerfor 21 yards to the Buffalo 17-yard line.
But replays showed that Welker may have only had one foot in bounds on the reception, and he may not even have had complete control of the ball as he ran out of bounds with it.
Bills head coach Dick Jauronand his staff apparently saw the same thing, so Jauron threw the red challenge flag.
But perhaps "threw" is too strong a word.
He simply dropped the flag in front of him and waited for the officials to blow the ensuing play dead before Cassel could snap the ball. But the play continued, thus negating the chance to challenge, because none of the officials saw Jauron toss out his flag.
"I should've taken the challenge flag and run onto the field with it," Jauron admitted after the game.
"I threw it on the sideline and clearly they couldn't see it. I didn't think, from my vantage point, it looked like a catch ... As I got more information, I thought it was a challenge, so I pulled it out and dropped it there. It was me. I need to get down the field because [the officials] didn't see it."
Kudos to Jauron for at least conceding his error.
Then, on three occasions, the Bills faced fourth down in New England territory, but decided to punt. The first one was a 4th-and-3 from the Pats 44 on the drive following the Cassel TD. There were still 4:49 remaining in the first quarter, so perhaps punting was the safer option at that point.
But the second time occurred with just over a minute remaining in the half and the Bills trailing 10-3. Yet again, they faced 4th-and-3, but this time there were on New England's 39 – a more opportune position to go for it. They chose not to, however.
Finally, in the fourth quarter, after the Pats had shown they could move the ball on the ground and through the air against Buffalo's banged up defense, the Bills were at New England's 42, with 11:11 to go in the game and down by 10 points.
Sure, it was 4th-and-11, but when you're fighting for the lead in the AFC East, you might want to take a gamble at that point. Jauron decided not to and sent in his punt team. Bills punter Brian Moormangot off a great kick, which was downed at the Pats 8.
But the increasingly efficient Cassel attacked Buffalo's ineffective defense (minus pass-rush specialist Aaron Schobeland talented cover safety Donte Whitner) with a variety of long and short passes and patient runs by rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis(105 yards on the afternoon). Nineteen plays and more than 9 minutes later, the Patriots scored the decisive touchdown, a 1-yard plunge by Green-Ellis (his fourth straight game with a rushing TD).
The only time the Bills appeared to show a sense of urgency was when the game was out of reach. With less than 2 minutes to go, rookie Leodis McKelvintook the ensuing kickoff 85 yards down to the New England 14.
On the very next play, Bills QB Trent Edwardshit rookie James Hardyfor a touchdown and Buffalo attempted an on-side kick, but kicker Rian Lindellfailed to send the ball the necessary 10 yards for his teammates to try to recover it (it appeared to hit a player, but it was unclear from several replays whether a Patriot or a Bill touched it first, so the officials ruled that it was Pats ball).
"The only explanation I heard on the field was it didn't go 10 yards," Lindell said when asked about the play. "Whether it touched us first, I don't know, maybe that is what the refs thought."
Edwards didn't help his team's cause when he overthrew several open receivers during the game. He also suffered from a few dropped passes, a pair of INTs, and a couple of sacks. And he didn't get much help from his vaunted running back tandem of Marshawn Lynchand Fred Jackson, who combined for a meager total of 60 yards.
"I don't think their running game was much of a factor [today]," defensive end Richard Seymourtold reporters. "I think that's probably their strength. I didn't feel like they were running the ball down out throat."
The Bills couldn't run, couldn't pass (Edwards completed just 13 throws for 120 yards), and couldn't prevent the Pats from doing either.
But what doesn't show up in the stat sheet is that, in the end, it just seemed like New England wanted this game more than Buffalo.