Good teams can go on the road against a weak opponent and take care of business.
Fortunately for the Patriots, the defense and special teams units got that memo before kickoff. Those units and a whole bunch of lucky bounces were enough to lead New England to its fourth straight win, a grueling 12-9 overtime victory over Buffalo.
In a match-up that somehow always proves difficult, the Patriots (9-5) went to overtime with the Bills for the fourth time in five games. It wasn't pretty or easy, but New England clinched its first winning season since 1998 when Adam Vinatieri hit from 23 yards out, his fourth field goal in as many tries with 9:15 remaining in the extra period.
Talent and execution get a team on the winning track, but at some point you have to wonder when destiny and luck are taking over. New England had an inordinate number of lucky breaks, from Vinatieri's second field goal banking in off the upright to Buffalo losing effective running back Travis Henry (12 carries 54 yards) late in the second quarter to a knee injury. There also was a false start on Buffalo that pushed them just out of field goal range to force a punt and a 43-yard field goal attempt by the Bills Shayne Graham that didn't even clear the end zone.
Luck is also having the biggest play of the game come from a guy who wasn't even conscious when the all-important events unfold. In overtime, Tom Brady hit David Patten on an out pattern at the Bills 42. As Patten caught the ball, he was drilled by Keion Carpenter, who caused a fumble. The ball was recovered by Buffalo, but not before it touched an out-of-bounds Patten, who had briefly been knocked out.
Originally the play was ruled a fumble and given to the Bills. It was overturned after replays. New England capitalized quickly when Antowain Smith took the next play 38 yards to the 3-yard line to set up the game-winning field goal. Smith appeared to be stopped after a short gain, but he worked his way out of a scrum and ran to daylight.
"I think everybody kind of gave up on the play and figured I was stopped right there," said Smith, who finished with 20 carries for 95 yards. "I reversed the field, and there was just a lot of open space. I just kept running."
The New England Patriots take on the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday, December 16, 2001.
There is no question the defense played a solid game. New England held Alex Van Pelt to 22-of-44 passing for 219 yards while keeping the running game under wraps. The Patriots have now gone 11 quarters without allowing a touchdown.
Still, some major miscues by Buffalo made the victory possible. Twice during the game the Patriots watched sure touchdown catches by wide receiver Peerless Price go by the boards.
Late in the first quarter, Buffalo had a first-and-10 from the Patriots 49-yard line. The Bills went for broke, and Price had cornerback Otis Smith beat down the right sideline. Van Pelt hit him in the hands, but Price flat out dropped the ball. The Bills wound up punting.
Price appeared to redeem himself in the fourth quarter when on third-and-goal from the 7 he hauled in a Van Pelt pass in the corner of the end zone. However he was ruled out of bounds. Replays indicated he may have had both feet down, but Buffalo didn't challenge the call. Instead the Bills settled for a 25-yard Graham field goal that tied the game 6-6.
Despite the breaks, Smith doesn't see luck having anything to do with it.
"There is no such thing as luck in this league," Smith said. "You take the victories however they come. We are out there working hard; I don't feel lucky today, no. Our job defensively is limiting the number of points they get. We did that pretty well today."
Smith may not see it as luck, but the stars were aligned right for the Patriots. Three times in the fourth quarter Buffalo had near interceptions in New England territory. There was a batted ball at the line of scrimmage that Aaron Schobel couldn't pull down, and cornerback Chris Watson broke nicely on two out patterns to Terry Glenn. He bobbled the second one as he went out of bounds, and the first one went through his hands to Glenn, who took it 19 yards.
Both times Watson had a clear path down the sideline. Not getting the second pick hurt big time, as Glenn's play helped New England march to a game-tying field goal.
"They were breaking on that throw all day," said Brady, who finished 19-of-35 for 237 yards and one interception. "I stepped up into the pocket and delivered the ball a little late on that one. The guy was coming hard, and Terry snapped it in. That was a huge play."
It was especially important because neither team was getting much going offensively. A defensive touchdown for either side likely would have sealed the game.
New England's defense was especially strong in the first half, when it limited Buffalo to three-and-out on four of its first seven possessions. A fifth possession lasted just four plays as the Bills managed just 129 net yards, one third down conversion in eight attempts and no points in the first half.
The defense also came up huge on Buffalo's first two possessions of the second half. An Antowain Smith fumble on the opening possession gave the Bills the ball at New England's 30, but the defense limited Buffalo to 7 yards and forced Graham to hit a career-long 41-yard field goal.
On the next drive, the Bills moved from their own 20 to the Patriots 18 before a holding call moved them back to the 26. On second-and-18 Van Pelt tried to hit tight end Jay Riemersma, but Lawyer Milloy intercepted the ball and returned it 21 yards to halt another scoring opportunity.
"[Defensive coordinator] Romeo [Crennel] has done a good job and the secondary has really tightened up down there," Head Coach Bill Belichick said. "We had a couple of close calls with guys in the back of the end zone and down the sidelines, but it's been just enough. That is the way you have to play in the red zone. You take away the easy stuff and make them hit on the hard stuff."
As difficult as the victory was, its importance increased with Miami's loss to San Francisco. Now the Week 15 game with the Dolphins at Foxboro Stadium Saturday could determine the AFC East Division crown. With that game on the backburner, the Patriots knew they needed to leave Buffalo on the winning end.
"This is not a folding time of year," Smith said. "We came in here to get a victory, and that's what we did. How we did it is not important right now."
2001: A Super Bowl Sound Odyssey
An aural history of the 2001 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. The six-part podcast features interviews with over 20 players, coaches, media members and others who were there to witness this historic season, mixed with the iconic sounds that detailed every dramatic twist and turn of an unforgettable season. Every memorable moment from the 2001 Patriots season is revisited with new-found perspective 20 years later. It's a fresh and thorough look back at the team that started a football dynasty.
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