Any Patriots fan that watched Sunday's game between New England and the Buffalo Bills who didn't already understand what the term "winning ugly" meant probably has a pretty good idea now. New England outlasted the hapless Bills, 21-11, at windy and cold Foxboro Stadium by simply committing fewer errors than its guests.
The teams struggled in the conditions and combined for 16 penalties, five turnovers and three missed field goals. But wins are tough to come by in the NFL, and Head Coach Bill Belichick wasn't about to apologize for a victory that pushed his team over the .500 mark for the first time in his Patriots career.
"That game was pretty much everything we thought it would be in terms of the closeness of it," Belichick said. "That was certainly a game where we had some mistakes — we turned the ball over and had some penalties — but we got some real good defensive play on third down. Overall we lacked the consistency we'd like to have."
The 25-mile-per-hour winds were a major factor in the game, limiting both teams' effectiveness in the passing and kicking games. The Patriots took advantage of a pair of Bills punts into the wind to put two touchdowns on the board, which essentially were enough for the win.
The first came late in the first quarter after the Patriots forced the Bills to punt. Rookie Brian Moorman tried to keep his kick out of the wind and booted a low line drive that traveled just 28 yards. Troy Brown ran up to grab it and quickly made his way up field. His 29-yard return set up the Patriots offense at the Bills 35 and quarterback Tom Brady got his team on the board with a 6-yard scoring pass to Kevin Faulk.
The rest of the half was riddled with Patriots errors on offense. Brady was sacked a season-high seven times and added a pair of fumbles and an interception in one of his poorer efforts of the season. He finished 15-of-21 for just 107 yards and often looked confused by the Bills coverages.
"Offensively, we weren't real sharp," Belichick said. "We were sporadic running the ball. We had some good runs, then lost yardage on some plays. Buffalo mixed up their coverages real well and put [Brady] in situations where he had to hold onto the ball."
While the offense failed to generate much flow, the defense continued its recent fine play. The key for the Patriots was their third-down defense, which allowed the Bills to convert just twice in 12 attempts (17 percent). Buffalo managed just 241 yards of total offense and quarterback Rob Johnson (14-of-27 for 167 yards and one interception) was knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury after a Terrell Buckley sack late in the fourth quarter. It was the fifth and final sack of the day for New England, giving the defense 14 in the last two weeks.
The New England Patriots take on the Buffalo Bills at Foxboro Stadium on Sunday, November 11, 2001.
"I think we're starting to get a little momentum going on our side of the ball," said cornerback Otis Smith, who had the Patriots interception. "We're starting to get things moving in the right direction. We have to continue to play hard-nosed football."
The Bills got on the board early in the second quarter after Brady was intercepted by Antoine Winfield. Brady was looking for corner-turned-reserve wideout Buckley on the play but his pass was off target and picked off. Buffalo marched to the Patriots 1 before rookie Jonas Jennings jumped offside on third-and-goal to push the Bills to the 6. Johnson's pass was incomplete and Jake Arians booted a 24-yard field goal to complete the first-half scoring.
Arians and Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri each missed makeable field goals later in the quarter. Vinatieri's was a 43-yarder into the wind but had plenty of distance before missing wide right. That drive was set up by Smith's interception at the Bills 24. Two Antowain Smith runs set up third-and-five but Aaron Schobel sacked Brady for a 6-yard loss and Vinatieri was unable to put any points on the board.
Johnson later executed an effective two-minute drill for the Bills, moving the ball 40 yards to the Patriots 27. He was flagged for an illegal forward pass on third down and Arians' 49-yarder clanked the left upright just before halftime.
The Patriots managed just 94 yards of offense and six first downs in the first half yet still held a 7-3 lead. Brady, who never got into a rhythm, completed 5-of-7 for 47 yards in the opening 30 minutes. The second half wasn't much better, but once again the Patriots made just enough plays to win.
Another poor Moorman punt into the wind — this one a 20 yarder — put the ball at the Buffalo 40 early in the third. Still, the Patriots needed a questionable pass interference penalty on Kenyatta Wright on third-and-four from the 34 to extend the drive. Two plays later, there were no questions when Winfield bumped David Patten in the end zone for another pass interference penalty, putting the ball on the Bills 1. Smith plunged in for the touchdown two plays later.
From there, the defense kept the Bills at bay for the most part. It wasn't until an ill-advised call on third-and-five from the Patriots 41 that Buffalo had life. Belichick called for Brady to roll to his right, figuring even a sack on the play would keep the clocking rolling with just 3:04 remaining and the Bills out of timeouts.
But Kenrick Office chased Brady from behind and slapped the ball from his hand. He scooped it up before losing it and Jay Foreman grabbed it and ran to the Patriots 17. Two plays later, backup Alex Van Pelt hit Peerless Price for a touchdown. When he hit Eric Moulds for the two-point conversion, the teams were suddenly separated by just a field goal at 14-11.
Linebacker Mike Vrabel came up with Arians' onside kick and finally Belichick could breathe easier. Then Smith sealed the win with a 42-yard touchdown run with 1:52 to go to push the Patriots into the black for the first time since December of 1999.
"I'm just real happy for our football team," Belichick said. "They've been written off by a lot of people. We got off to a slow start at 0-2 and didn't get a lot of credit for as hard as they have worked and what they have gone through. It's a real credit to them to be able to hang in there and keep fighting."
As for the winning ugly angle, the players were fully aware they earned very few style points. They were quick to point out, however, that good teams find ways to win without playing well.
"It sounds like the makings of a pretty good football team," Smith said. "Not every game is going to turn out the way we want it. That's why it's the National Football League — it's tough each and every week and each game turns out differently."
With the St. Louis Rams on tap for a Sunday night tilt next week, the Patriots will certainly need to improve on Sunday's performance. But at 5-4 and in the thick of the playoff race in the AFC, worrying about the caliber of victories is a far cry from where this team was at the start of the season.
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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