October 3, 2004
At Ralph Wilson Stadium, PATRIOTS win, 31-17
By Scott A. Benson

Ringo was right. It don稚 come easy. And that may yet be a good thing.

In truth, the Patriots outlasted both their opponents and themselves today in Orchard Park, ultimately extending their unbeaten streak to18 with a 31-17 win over the Bills.

Don稚 let the 14 point spread fool you. The Patriots entered the 4th quarter tied with slumping Buffalo, 17-all. Their offense had started quickly, and then mostly faded against a solid Bills front seven. Their defense had been burned twice for passes of more than 40 yards by a suddenly-sprightly Drew Bledsoe, including one to Eric Moulds that gave the Bills a 2nd quarter lead.

And their special teams�..well, I thing we can conservatively describe their performance as 訴ncendiary�. And not the good, movie-review kind. The bad bullpen kind. Kick returns for touchdowns, punters sprinting 35 yards after fumbling the snap, and a curious kickoff strategy that seemed to scream 滴ere! Take it at your 40! We Give Up!�

But you know what? They池e still 3-0. They池e still undefeated in the conference and now in the division. They致e been tested in each game and have somehow withstood even embarrassing gaffes to prevail. And by virtue of their work last year, and through the first three weeks of this season, they池e still good enough to actively remain on a list of the NFL痴 best ever teams.

That痴 because when it counted yesterday, Tom Brady marched his team 61 yards in a little over a minute to even the score just before the half. When it counted, he took them another 80 yards to reclaim the lead with 11 minutes to play. And when it counted most, Tedy Bruschi made Bledsoe fumble, and Richard Seymour grabbed it on the run.

When it counted, the champions were able to play like champions.

Don稚 you get the sense that this Patriots team is already better equipped to defend the title than its 2002 predecessors? By week four of that season, it was pretty apparent that we weren稚 in New Orleans anymore.

I thankfully have nothing resembling that sinking feeling this time, despite how much I致e fretted about it this summer. Though the team has stumbled through some uneven early moments, I end this day with the further-growing conviction that the 2004 New England Patriots have the fundamental focus, toughness and resiliency they値l need to keep us all busy through January.

Patriots on Offense

The Bills have some nice defensive players, but for the most part, the Patriots were able to move the ball when they needed to.

They took the opening kickoff and ran off a 77 yard touchdown drive that quickly prevented any unnecessary 禅HIRTYONETONUTHIN� momentum from building in the aisles of The Ralph. No sense getting those people riled up.

As previously noted, they then got a must-touchdown at the end of the first half, when a play-faking Brady hit a wide open David Patten for a 38 yard score. And when the game neared the 45 minute mark tied at 17, the Patriots offense drove for seven critical points (a Daniel Graham grab in the back of the end zone) while holding the ball for nearly six minutes.

It will probably be mentioned that on that drive, the Bills actually forced the Patriots to settle for an Adam Vinatieri field goal, but jumped offside on the play to award the Patriots a first down, and a new life. It will probably be mentioned as an example of the kind of 鼠uck� these Patriots live by.

See, the way I see it, the Patriots could have wiped the go-ahead points off the board and promptly fumbled. They could have taken a sack or thrown a pick, or missed a try at a second FG. But they didn稚. They almost never do. Instead, they punched it in. Their opponent screwed up, and they made them pay.

Something like that has to be made of something more than just 鼠uck�.

It痴 more than just luck that has David Patten coming up big again for the Patriots, with over 100 yards receiving and a touchdown. The Pats started the game without Deion Branch, and lost Troy Brown and Bethel Johnson soon after (Bethel courtesy of Steve Neal Unchained, Part Two), but Patten and David Givens were more than enough to help Brady total nearly 300 passing yards.

The Pats had great success with the deep throw, particularly off Brady痴 deft play-action work (helped even more by the threat of Corey Dillon). Givens and Patten each had catches of over 40 yards, and Graham had one for 33.

The Patriots offensive line continued to sit on it and rotate, and they responded with a pretty clean game. They helped Dillon average more than 4 yards on 19 carries by quickly springing him up the middle (never better than on his 15 yard TD in the first) or walling off the Bills so he could sweep outside.

The line kept a pretty determined Buffalo pass rush (again, that front seven) off Tom Brady, who took a few hits but no sacks. As noted throughout, Brady had another strong game (particularly on third downs, as the Pats continued to convert at about 50%). While we池e on the subject, we might as well mention that Brady痴 the best quarterback in the NFL, and the centerpiece of the NFL痴 best team, and if things keep going this way (barring the unthinkable), he will for the first time be the frontrunner for league MVP.

Lastly, Dillon sounded one down note with his second fumble in two weeks, a second-quarter job that came at the Buffalo two. It cost the Patriots an almost-certain touchdown.

Patriots on Defense

I guess the first question that pops to mind is how in the hell can Drew Bledsoe look so bad for so long against so many teams and then suddenly spring to near lifelike form against the Patriots?

For a little while there, I was wondering if this might be Drew痴 day, and I imagined a special commemorative four-color pullout in tomorrow痴 Globe. Surprisingly, he was making quick drops and short throws to maintain possession and pile up first downs. And like last September, he was hitting big throws over the top. I got a little worried when Bledsoe beat the Pats secondary so badly on his touchdown to Moulds.

It wasn稚 just Bledsoe. Travis Henry had 98 yards on about 4 yards a carry. Eric Moulds finished with 10 catches for 126 yards. So, taken on the surface, the Bills anemic offense had unexpected success against the Patriots defense, which is not a comforting thought, no disrespect intended.

Yet, the Bills offense scored only 10 points. Henry ran steadily but rarely threatened bigger plays or scores. Bledsoe slowly reverted back to more familiar form as the Pats more frequently sent multiple blitzers to the line, and it was his fumble on the Bruschi sack and strip that led to Seymour痴 game clinching 68 yard return. It痴 not piling on to note that this kind of thing has happened to Drew an awful lot over his career.

A few defensive notes:

Both Eugene Wilson and Tyrone Poole gave up long passes. Is it my imagination, or has this happened a few times now? What痴 going on back there? I was also surprised by how few times Bledsoe appeared confused by the coverages he was seeing.

Poole rebounded nicely later, though, intercepting a poorly thrown Bledsoe pass and returning it to Bills territory.

Bruschi led the defense with two sacks, and the forced fumble as Bledsoe led the Bills towards a possible tying score in the fourth. Mike Vrabel continued to be a force from the edge.

It seemed like every time Travis Henry would start gaining a little steam, he would be soon met by Ted Johnson.

Patriots on Special Teams

Look, it痴 this simple. These guys don稚 make any plays. That痴 the first thing. They池e mediocre as a return outfit. Even with a couple of decent Bethel Johnson kickoff returns today, they have yet to do Thing One to excite anybody.

They池e horrifying as a coverage unit. You壇 think that after allowing a 98 yard kickoff return for a touchdown (the NFL equivalent to the Secret Service losing a president) earlier in the game, they壇 take pains to be attentive enough to ensure the punter doesn稚 run 35 yards for a first down after muffing a snap. You壇 think that, wouldn稚 you?

They stink. They stunk in August. They stunk in September. And now it痴 October, and they still stink.

Patriots on the Sidelines

The Patriots seemed to have a well-balanced offensive game plan and some solid idea about when they could try for the big play. Defensively, they again seemed content to let the Bills move the ball underneath and force Buffalo to string together long scoring drives. So the yards pile up but the points do not..

So hat痴 off to you boys. That is, except you, Seely.

And am I the only one who thinks it痴 funny that the local media-ocrity has spent the last four years telling us that Bill Belichick is a lifeless, soulless automaton who will never say anything of the slightest significance for fear he壇 lose some competitive advantage, and now all of a sudden, he痴 a reckless Chatty Cathy who痴 needlessly putting his players in harm痴 way with his disrespectful boasting?

Off Topic

In this week痴 Sports Illustrated, Jake Delhomme talks of life since Super Bowl 38. To prove that he is still the same humble person he痴 always been, Jake reluctantly reveals (well, not reluctantly, exactly�. it was in the first paragraph) that he still mows his own lawn. And he enjoys it. Dang!

What is it with these Deep South quarterbacks and their lawns? Kiln, Mississippi痴 own Brett Favre has filled three hundred Peter King notebooks with the same story. These guys must cling to those friggin� Toros like they were the last sane thing in their lives. Why do I think a few desperate tears have been shed in those plastic bucket seats? 的知 OK, you know. I mowed and weedwhacked this morning. I did it by myself, even though I can buy and sell every one of you! So what if I shake a little? Stop staring at me!�

From the sounds of it, every player in the NFL besides Favre and Jake has an entire staff of groundskeepers on call 24 hours a day, probably wearing matching Dockers and polo shirts, and whenever the player wants his lawn cut, he rings a little bell.

What the hell were we talking about?

Patriots Next Week

Oh, yeah, the Patriots. Next week, its home to Foxboro, and a visit by the red-hot Miami Dolphins (red-hot as in self-immolated). The Patriots will try to win their 19th straight game.