Orchard Park, N.Y. – It was like the Patriots of old. Not that old, mind you – about six weeks old.
The Patriots offense was on display and when Antowain Smith barreled into the end zone with 54 seconds left in the third quarter to put the Patriots up 31-7, a huge sigh of relief could be heard from the Patriots sideline as the Belichick vs. Bledsoe showdown was, for all intents and purposes, settled for now. Chalk one up for the guy who always claimed he merely "did what was in the best interest of his football team" when he chose Brady over Bledsoe and then later traded Bledsoe away.
More importantly, New England's four-game losing streak came screeching to a halt with a win against an AFC East opponent.
New England's defense was also on its game with strong performances from Ted Johnson and Tedy Bruschi and the defensive front seven as a whole, which consistently pushed the pocket in on Bledsoe and forced the Bills into having to make big plays to keep their drives alive. Ty Law proved a stalwart as well, having perhaps his best game of the 2002 season.
Down by 10, the Bills needed to start the second half with a score, but on their first drive, despite getting to the Patriots 32-yard line, Buffalo head coach Gregg Williams elected to punt on fourth and 2. The decision was roundly questioned by the Bills fans and for good reason.
New England took over on its own 17 and with Smith running and Brady finding open receivers, it took no time before Kevin Faulk took a pass from Brady while the quarterback was under pressure and went 45-yards for the score. Like he did earlier, Andruzzi threw another solid downfield block to open things up. Faulk took to the left sideline and headed home. Any hope gained by the Bills score to end the first half was dashed by the Patriots relentless offense.
The above-mentioned Smith touchdown was followed by another, this one a 14-yard catch and run by the former Bill and the 9-play, 64 yard drive created an insurmountable 38-7 lead for New England. The final insult came when Ty Law intercepted his former 'mate with just under six minutes left in the game.
On the day, Brady was fantastic, finishing 23 of 27 for 310 yards and 4 touchdowns. Smith had 111 yards on the ground and three touchdowns -- two with catches. David Patten led the Patriots receivers with six catches for 88 yards.
With the win, the Patriots pulled even at 4-4 and will travel to Champaign, Ill., next week to take on the Bears for the second of three straight road games.
New England immediately went to work on the sporadic Bills defense, marching 68 yards on its first drive of the game for the early lead. Soft coverage allowed Brady to pick his way downfield with passes to Smith, Faulk, Patten, Brown and a 22-yard throw to Daniel Graham back in the line-up from his injured shoulder. That play put the Patriots on the Bills 7-yard line. Smith ran for 2 more and then Brady hit Christian Fauria for the 5-yard score.
It looked like Buffalo would return the favor on their first drive, starting on its own 38 and moving down to New England's 17. But on third and 2, Ted Johnson broke through the line and sacked Bledsoe for a huge 14-yard loss. The 50-yard field goal attempt by Mike Hollis fell short and the Patriots took over at their own 40.
Johnson had yet another big third down stop in the first quarter. The Bills were third and inches from their own 39. Bledsoe handed off to Henry, who up to that point had already gained 37 yards on four carries. Johnson shot through again and nailed the tailback for a 2-yard loss, forcing the punt and setting up his team's offense in good field position at the New England 43.
As a result, the first 15 minutes ended with the Patriots up 7-0 and driving at the Bills 30 where Graham factored in again, catching a 14-yard pass from Brady down to the 16. Two plays later, Brady found Smith in the flat. Joe Andruzzi threw a good block to clear the way and Smith found the end zone. The extra point gave the Patriots a 14-point lead and critical momentum in enemy territory.
And it looked like that momentum was growing when Bledsoe was sacked by Richard Seymour for an 8-yard loss. The Bills were faced with a third and 20. Bledsoe dropped back and as he has done all season, found Eric Moulds over the middle for 22 yards. He followed that first down up with another to Peerless Price for 20 yards. Henry ran for 10 more and an unnecessary roughness call on Terrell Buckley pushed the ball to the 6-yard line, first and goal.
Unlike, the past four games, however, the Patriots red zone defense stiffened. Willie McGinest hit Henry for a 1-yard loss. Bledsoe was chased out of the pocket and threw incomplete on second down, and then again on third. Amazingly, the chip-shot field goal was missed by Hollis and New England retained its 14-point edge.
The Patriots tacked on 3 more points on the subsequent drive with a 46-yard Vinatieri field goal. The big play on the drive was a questionable interference call on the Bills Chris Watson that got the Patriots off a third and 14 hook. Smith knocked off 17 yards on a third and 1 carry, adding to the Bills defensive woes to that point.
The half ended with a wild Buffalo drive including a successful Bledsoe fourth and 1 sneak and an awful roughing call on McGinest when he planted Bledsoe trying to fight off a sack. Then, on third and 16, Bledsoe hit Josh Reed, who, with some fine running and sloppy tackling by the Patriots, gained 21 yards. Another penalty, this one a pass interference on Buckley, had the Bills on the 15-yard line. Bruschi tipped the next pass down to the ground. On second down, Bledsoe hit Price and Price got hit just as he approached the goal line. The ball squirted loose but right back into the hands of the wide receiver on the ground at the 1-yard line. Finally, Bledsoe hit Price two plays later for the score and with 10 seconds left, the Bills were on the board and the half ended with the Patriots up, 17-7.