The bullets are flying fast and furiously, but with a defense that hasn't allowed a touchdown in three games, the Patriots are miraculously dodging them as they move closer to an unexpected playoff berth.
On Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., the Patriots limited the upset-minded Buffalo Bills to just three field goals while mustering four of their own in a hard-fought 12-9 win. At 9-5 with two games to go, New England is guaranteed its first winning season since 1998, but that is hardly relevant with a playoff position still on the forefront.
"That was a dogfight," Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick, echoing his sentiments from the week leading up to the game. "I thought both defenses played real well. We were fortunate to make just enough plays to win. That's about the way the last several of these Buffalo-New England games have gone."
In fact, other than the Patriots 10-point win earlier this season over the Bills (which was a three-point game until the final minute), the last four meetings between the two have now gone to overtime with each team taking a pair of 3-point wins. The Patriots swept Buffalo for the first time since 1997.
Anyone who thought the now 2-11 Bills would roll over in this one was sadly mistaken. As both teams struggled to move the ball offensively, the defenses dug in and took control. The Patriots outgained Buffalo, 335-310, but the teams combined for 15 punts and eight field goal tries. Fortunately for the Patriots, Buffalo's Shayne Graham missed his first one, from 43 yards, just before the half.
Overall, it was an ugly game with some ferocious hitting and one the Patriots will gladly walk away from victorious as they chase the 9-4 Dolphins, who visit Foxboro Stadium this Saturday in a game that will decide first place in the division with two weeks to go.
Sometimes, it is better to be lucky than good and that certainly was the case on the Patriots game-winning scoring drive in overtime. On first-and-10 from the Patriots 46-yard line, quarterback Tom Brady, who struggled throughout, rolled to his right and connected with wideout David Patten on the sideline for 13 yards, but Patten fumbled when he was hammered on the play by Buffalo's Keion Carpenter. Buffalo rookie cornerback Nate Clements scooped up the loose ball for what seemed like a critical turnover.
But the play was reviewed in two areas. First, referee Mike Carey checked the validity of the call on the field, which had it as a catch, fumble and Buffalo recovery. He ruled it was indeed a catch and a legitimate fumble, but then ruled that Patten's legs were in contact with the ball while his head rested out of bounds. By rule, the ball is dead and out of bounds meaning the Patriots retained possession.
"I don't know exactly what the ruling was," Belichick said. "We were just focused on getting our plays in. We were ready to go either way, offense or defense."
One play later, however, running back Antowain Smith turned nothing into something when he ran left into a pile only to bounce it out and reverse field to the right where he took off for a 38-yard gain to the Bills 3. That run set up Adam Vinatieri for his fourth field goal, this one from 23 yards, as the Patriots escaped with a 12-9 win.
Brady had a tough afternoon on his first visit to Buffalo as he was off the mark in completing 19-of-35 passes for 237 yards with no touchdowns, an interception and was sacked five times – all in the second half. Ten of his incompletions were overthrown passes. It is the third straight game in which he failed to throw a touchdown pass, but he did utilize nine different receivers in what has become typical of the first-year starter.
Fortunately for Brady, New England's defense kept the clamps on Alex Van Pelt, who connected on only 22-of-44 for 219 yards with an interception. More importantly, the Bills converted only 3-of-15 third downs for a 20 percent conversion rate.
Smith's 38-yard gain helped his numbers as he picked up 95 yards on 20 attempts to lead a Patriots ground attack that produced 129 rushing yards.
The Patriots opened the scoring with 4:02 left in the first quarter when they took advantage of excellent field position and drove from midfield to the Bills 22 before settling on a 40-yard Vinatieri field goal. Smith did most of the damage with four runs for 17 yards.
The Patriots used the hurry-up late in the second quarter to extend the lead to 6-0 when Brady guided the team from his own 35 to the Buffalo 15 before misfiring on two passes to the end zone and again settling on a 32-yard Vinatieri field goal. A 40-yard strike from Brady to Patten was the key play.
Buffalo finally got on the board in the third quarter, thanks to a Smith fumble at the Patriots 30. The Bills moved only 7 yards and Graham booted a 41-yard field goal to make it 6-3.
The most impressive offensive march in the game led to the Bills tying the score. Behind Van Pelt's arm and Shawn Bryson's running, Buffalo moved 76 yards in 15 plays and 7:46. But after Peerless Price was ruled out of bounds on a pass play in the end zone which Buffalo certainly should have reviewed, Graham kicked another field goal to tie the score, 6-6, with 10:38 to go in regulation.
That marked the game's only sustained, lengthy drive, but Buffalo did move form its 444 to the Patriots 23 on its next possession only to call on Graham once again, and the kicker drilled another 41-yarder for Buffalo's first lead of the game, 9-6.
The Patriots went back to the no-huddle on their next possession and Brady opened up the march with a 19-yard strike to Terry Glenn. After hitting Troy Brown for 8, he found little-used tight end Jermaine Wiggins down the right seam for 25 yards to the Bills 11. The drive stalled, but Vinatieri tied the game with a 25-yard field goal.
The Bills won the overtime coin toss and moved 20 yards to their own 48 before being stopped short on third-and-two when Otis Smith broke up a slant to Eric Moulds.
That defensive play set up the Patriots for the game winning drive, which started on their own 20 and was extended by the controversial call that went in their favor.
The third-down defense was the story, but New England did hold Bryson to 38 yards on 14 carries after he took over for injured rookie Travis Henry, who found room to the tune of 12 carries for 54 yards before twisting his knee.
The Patriots return home to face the Dolphins Saturday riding a four-game win streak and having won six of their last seven and eight of their last 10.