by Scott Benson

The 2006 edition of the New England Patriots, after being unfashionably late to its own opening, rallied to upstage the upstart Buffalo Bills in a hard fought 19-17 divisional win surprisingly keyed by the previously beleguered Patriots defense.

The game turned when Don Davis stopped Willis McGahee on a 4th and 1 from the New England 7 at the 9 minute mark of the 3rd quarter. The Bills had taken the second half kickoff and had driven the ball some 70 yards in 6 minutes, and were just inches from hanging an ignominious opening day loss on the Patriots. Instead, Davis, the veteran special teamer now pressed into action as a 3rd down coverage linebacker, filled the hole (surrounded by his mates) and saved the day.

Dick Jauron was clearly trying to bury the Pats by eschewing an easy field goal, though as it turns out, those 3 gimme points may have sealed the game for the Bills.

Emboldened by the defensive stand, and aided by a rash of sudden injuries to the cat quick Buffalo D, the woefully underperforming Patriots offense suddenly clicked into gear behind its newly punishing running game and a huge Ben Watson sprint and catch that went for 34 yards on a 3rd and 9 play. They went back to the ground after Watson’s strike, gashing the Bills for 5, 6, 7, and 8 yards at a pop, eventually setting up a diving Kevin Faulk (lined up as a receiver) catch of a Brady lob in the right corner of the end zone that cut the Buffalo lead back to 3 points.

The Pats D quickly got the ball back, forcing a Bills three-and-out (through its first consistent run stopping of the day) as the game entered the 4th quarter. Brady then led the Patriots on a 6 minute, 60 yard drive that was enlivened by pefectly executed 24 yard pitch and catch with Reche Caldwell (who had angled his way to a hole in a Bills zone coverage, just as Brady’s pass arrived), which pushed the ball inside the Buffalo 20 and set up a Stephen Gostkowski 32 yard field goal that brought the game to even. For the record, the kid drained his first meaningful kick for New England. I thought he was supposed to miss those.

A Bills penalty on the subsequent kick set up the go-ahead score for New England. The Pats pass rush pinned its ears back and came after JP Losman, who finally was driven back into the end zone on a 3rd down play, where he was dragged down by Ty Warren for the go-ahead safety. After over 50 minutes of futility, the heavily favored Patriots finally had the lead.

Brady immediately tried to give it back. After getting the ball on the exchange, he inexplicably lofted a lazy, underthrown ball to Watson on 1st down, ignoring the time consuming running game for another try downfield. The pass was intercepted by rookie Donte Whitner, and the Bills suddenly had life. Brady made the plays he had to make in the game’s final 30 minutes, but the Patriots quarterback was far from sharp today.

The pick wouldn’t matter, thanks to a stupid Buffalo penalty that ended the potential go-ahead drive. After Peerless Price had grabbed a Losman toss on 3rd and 2 from the NE 48, Robert Royal was nabbed for an illegal block in the back, and the Bills were forced to re-rack their conversion attempt. This time, Richard Seymour sacked Losman before he could get another pass away.

The New England D, for all their 1st half ineffectiveness, had won the game for the Patriots. Seymour and the defensive line, which had been shoved out of the stadium in the first half, led the comeback as if it had been inspired by its crucial 4th down stop.

The offense ran down the final 6:15 by turning things over to Clock Killin’ Corey Dillon. He finished with 73 yards on 16 bruising carries, perfectly complimented the flashy, shifty Maroney, who added an impressive 17 for 86 in his pro debut.

No Patriots receiver stood out, though Watson’s sprint up the hash, and Caldwell’s catch to set up the tying FG, should make the highlight reels.

All’s well that ends well. The Patriots will have to play a lot better next Sunday in New York.