ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Sunday afternoon, the Patriots tamed the wild wind of Buffalo.
Afterward, they were left twisting in it.
New England looked in complete control from start to finish against the struggling Bills, despite 40 to 60 MPH gusts that made passing challenging, kicking difficult, and simply standing on the sideline a near impossibility.
The trajectory of field goal attempts more closely resembled that of a balloon releasing its air – undisciplined and unpredictable. Pass attempts were at a premium, causing the game to be completed a good 15 minutes earlier than it normally would. But the determined Patriots seemed unfazed by the conditions, en route to posting their first shutout of the season.
The real uncertainty came once the game ended.
In order to secure a spot in the playoffs, the Pats needed not only to win, but to have either or both the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens to lose their respective games, which kicked off at 4:15 Eastern. That made for a turbulent return trip home, at least emotionally.
In the post-game locker room, while players and coaches rushed to shower and change into their street clothes, many couldn't help but stop for a moment and eye a television that was perched on top of one of the lockers. The atmosphere was cramped and humid from steaming showers, though charged with an electricity born of the excitement of the moment. Smiles, back-slaps, hoots, and hollers could be heard all around. The playoffs still seemed possible.
When it was time to board the buses to Buffalo International Airport, the Dolphins-Jets game remained scoreless.
"It felt good to get a 'w' and give ourselves a chance at the post-season," remarked safety James Sanders, who returned to the lineup after missing time recently with an abdominal injury.
"We did what we had to do today. I want to be in the playoffs, but I refuse to root for somebody," noted nose tackle Vince Wilfork, unable even to mention the New York Jets (Miami's opponent) by name.
The ride to the airport was methodical. Painfully so. Less a result of the stop-and-go traffic and more because of the Jets' performance.
"Oh! He dropped it!" exclaimed Patriots play-by-play announcer Gil Santos when a Miami receiver couldn't hold on to what would have been a touchdown pass on a flee-flicker.
With a tiny, hand-held television, Santos, working overtime on this day for his fellow passengers, and his WBCN radio producer Marc Cappello provided constant running commentary on the progress of the game.
Meanwhile, after jumping ahead 3-0, Baltimore suddenly trailed, 7-3. The radio guys let out a joyous cheer.
The Jets opened the scoring in their game with a touchdown pass, sending a wave a cheers throughout the bus. The moment of joy was brief, however, as New York botched the extra point attempt.
"Are you kidding me?" cried an incredulous Cappello.
"Only the Jets …" lamented Santos.
As the Patriots convoy pulled onto the tarmac, the Dolphins hit paydirt to go up 7-6. But it took more time for the team to go through airport security screening than it did for Miami to score again.
While walking to the steps of the plane, Santos sullenly informed anyone within earshot "14-6, Dolphins. They picked off a pass and ran it back. A defensive lineman."
The Ravens quickly turned things around as well. They led 24-7 at the half, just as the Patriots were settling into their seats on their charter flight.
Hope wouldn't die just yet, though. The Jets responded with a field goal to cut Miami's lead to 14-9 at halftime. Word soon spread about the cabin.
There was a lot of traffic on the runway, so it was a while before the plane took off. During that time, the second half got underway and New York reclaimed the lead with a touchdown and subsequent 2-point conversion ... 17-14 Jets.
Cheers rang out on the Pats plane! It finally took off, as did the Patriots hopes.
The flight back to New England took less than an hour. Midway through it, Miami pulled back ahead, first with a touchdown, then a field goal. Favre was intercepted again. Baltimore, too, was piling up the points.
The Patriots came back down to earth, literally and figuratively. Upon touch-down at T.F. Green, it was official: New England's improbable, incomprehensible 2008 season had come to an abrupt end.
Despite an 11-5 record, they'd be home for New Year's and watching the playoffs.
"It's kind of a roller coaster of emotions," running back Sammy Morris declared back at Gillette Stadium. "You know, winning that game and showering up and getting on the plane and waiting to see about the Jets game … it was kind of a high and a low in a matter of hours.
"I guess we could have played better this season," Morris concluded. "Our goal every year is to get to the show and to win one, but regardless of our record, we aren't able to do that. We did our part … undefeated in December … that's the problem of relying on other people. On paper, it's a good record, but it's not good enough."
Others on the team talked of the sense of pride they felt despite missing the playoffs.
"In some ways, it's been a very rewarding year because of all the stuff we've had to fight through," said defensive coordinator Dean Pees, alluding to the Pats' astronomical number of injuries to key players like reigning NFL MVP Tom Brady.
"When you start the season off losing the MVP, and what our offense was able to accomplish this year, that's pretty remarkable," Pees added.
"We had a hell of a season," Wilfork observed.
"A lot of people doubted us. A lot of people counted us out. A lot of people thought we wouldn't finish the way we finished. A lot of people said our season was over after Tom went down. As a team, we rose to the challenge way back then. It just goes to show you what kind of team we have."
And what a calendar year it's been for Wilfork and his Patriots teammates and coaches. This team's miracle 2007 season ended in disappointment this past February in Arizona at Super Bowl XLII. And now, it's star-crossed 2008 campaign has ended just days before we ring in 2009.
For the Patriots and their legions of fans, this year has been one wild ride indeed.