It may have been ugly, but New England will take it.
The Patriots (5-4) got themselves above .500 for the first time under Head Coach Bill Belichick by holding off Buffalo 21-11 in the first home game in four weeks. With another strong defensive performance Belichick's team came up with enough plays to take a sloppy, penalty-filled outing, upping its record in divisional play to 3-2 in the process.
The Bills (1-7) were able to do very little offensively, thanks to another day of heavy pressure on the quarterback from the Patriots. After posting nine sacks in Atlanta a week ago, New England had five more Sunday. After posting 11 sacks in the first six games combined, the defense has 16 in the last three outings.
As a result, Buffalo quarterback's Rob Johnson and Alex Van Pelt combined to go 16-for-34 for 204 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. The ground game was even less productive, gaining just 68 yards on 20 carries.
"It feels good to be over .500 and start to see the top, because we've been down so deep for a while," said cornerback Otis Smith, who got his second pick in two games for his team-leading third interception. "We have a lot of good players on this defense. There are a lot of veterans who now how to play the game."
New England was exceptional on third down defense, holding the Bills to just two conversions in 12 attempts (17 percent). To open the second half, the Patriots held Buffalo to two three-and-outs and a four-play possession on its first three drives.
"We were able to get a lot of pressure off the ball, and the corners stuck to the wide receivers, that's basically it," said linebacker Ted Johnson, who tied rookie Richard Seymour for the team high in tackles with seven. "When you do both consistently, that is how you get off the field. There is a confidence here that has slowly been building. We're happy, but we are by no means satisfied. That'' a good thing. Last week we went out and dominated, and this week we won ugly."
Despite getting tagged for 75 penalty yards and putting up a stale offensive attack, the Patriots appeared to have the game well in hand late in the fourth quarter. Then disaster hit. Leading 14-3 with 3:04 to go, Tom Brady was sacked by Kendrick Office at his own 30. Brady fumbled, and it was picked up by Jay Foreman and returned to the Patriots 17-yard line.
"That's careless," said Brady, who completed 15-of-21 for 107 yards. "The ball comes out if it is not protected and guys are swatting at it like that. Taking care of the ball is something I take pride in, and I have to do a better job of it."
The ensuing Buffalo possession was the only time the defense could not keep the ball out of the end zone. Van Pelt, in for Johnson who was knocked out of the game the series before, hit Peerless Price for a 17-yard touchdown pass two plays later. A pass to Eric Moulds converted the two-point conversion, making the score 14-11.
Linebacker Mike Vrabel recovered the onside kick with 2:37 left, giving the Patriots another chance to run out the clock. They did one better. After running for 3 yards on first down to take the clock down to the two-minute warning. On the next play he ran 42 yards up the middle for a touchdown to ice the game.
"I think [Buffalo] stunted in, and I went outside, but I saw a spot and went back inside," said Smith, who finished with 20 carries for 100 yards. "I just hit it, and from there I just saw the end zone. At that point it was up to me to just out race them to the end zone."
The play was Smith's second touchdown of the day, and it gave him his second straight 100-yard outing. That was about the only highlight for the offense, which threw for just 107 yards, had three turnovers and managed just 205 net yards. Brady was under constant pressure, getting sacked seven times, the most allowed by the Patriots since Bledsoe went down seven times in the seventh game of 2000.
"We didn't have real good plays called for either the receivers or the quarterback," Belichick said. "From a coaching standpoint, I don't think this was my best job. I don't think it was a great job by me, and offensively we didn't have good execution."
After opening with a three-and-out, the offense got going on its second possession. A 28-yard punt return by Troy Brown gave New England the ball at Buffalo's 35-yard line. Brady orchestrated a six-play drive that was capped by a 6-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Faulk. It was the second straight game Faulk caught a touchdown pass on a throw towards the corner. Faulk, who led the team with seven catches and 29 receiving yards, beat Foreman to the ball.
"I saw Kevin outside on the linebacker again," Brady said. "I gave a little pump fake and then left the ball a little behind Kevin where he could get it. The linebacker was on him, but he made a great catch."
It was not the prettiest game ever, but the Patriots made enough plays to come out on top. With four wins in five games, they are on a roll. While he wants sharper play, Belichick will take the wins however they come.
"I'm really happy for our football team," Belichick said. "They have been written off by a lot of people, and they got off to a slow start. They didn't get a lot of credit for as hard as they have worked and as much as they have gone through. It's a real credit to be able to hang in there and keep fighting."
Grant Williams started at left tackle in place of rookie Matt Light for the second straight game. On the right side, Greg Robinson-Randall started despite being listed as doubtful for the entire week. Light did play when Williams went out in the third quarter with a shoulder injury.
Wide receiver Charles Johnson and tight end Rod Rutledge started in place of Troy Brown and David Patten as the Patriots opened in a double tight end set.
Richard Seymour started at nose tackle, and Brandon Mitchell moved over to left end in place of Bobby Hamilton.
The inactives for the game were cornerbacks Leonard Myers and Ben Kelly; linebacker Bryan Cox; offensive lineman Kenyatta Jones; wide receiver Terry Glenn; and defensive tackle Riddick Parker. Drew Bledsoe was the emergency quarterback.
The Patriots waived rookie linebacker T.J. Turner Saturday. His roster spot was not yet filled by game time.