by Scott Benson

The New England Patriots today ran their record to a division-leading 5-1 with a 28-3 win over the Buffalo Bills in a game that may have been, as the old cliche goes, closer than the final score would indicate.

Despite the three-score margin of victory, the Patriots spent most of the first three quarters trailing Buffalo in both total yardage and time of possession, as the Pats offense again struggled with the Bills active front seven and their defensive teammates labored to slow down Willis McGahee and JP Losman. Only a couple of late touchdown drives by the Patriots – the inevitable outcome of an afternoon filled with predictable errors by the undisciplined Bills – gave New England the edge in both categories, and on the scoreboard.

Corey Dillon had two early touchdown runs for the Pats, and a once again battered Tom Brady hung in there to throw scoring passes to Chad Jackson and Doug Gabriel that provided some much needed breathing room over the final twenty minutes of play.

The Patriots defense recovered from a sometimes-rough first half to eventually clamp down on Buffalo, closing off the run and forcing Losman into one third-and-long situation after another.

They didn’t so much beat the pesky Bills today – they outlasted them. Which is fine; a win is a win, especially when it produces the second best start of the Bill Belichick era, and an early 4-0 division mark.

The Bills may match up well physically with the Patriots, but they’re still miles away from the possessing the kind of maturity and composure that New England has become known for. Take away the three Losman turnovers (two fumbles lost, and an Asante Samuel interception deep in Patriots territory) and the mindnumbingly stupid roughness penalty that set up Dillon’s second touchdown, and we’d likely be talking about a much different game tonight.

But we’re not. Which is reason enough to look beyond today’s momentary difficulties to appreciate a professional win by one of the few truly legitimate teams in the NFL.

As called for in this morning’s Globe, the Patriots got off to a rare fast start with a six-and-a-half minute touchdown drive on the game’s first possession. It was their first such TD of the season.

Though many of us expected the Patriots to pound the smallish Buffalo front with Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney, the initial drive was keyed by the passing of Brady, who countered Buffalo’s quickness with a series of short drops and flips to Reche Caldwell, who was targeted on the quarterback’s first four throws. He grabbed three of them to lead the Pats downfield, where Jackson (a nifty end around for 14 yards), Ben Watson (a 14 yard catch and run on another misdirection play, this one a multi-fake screen) and Troy Brown (a sharp 9 yard grab on 3rd and 8 inside the 20) took over. Two plays later, Dillon carried it home with a slashing run from the Buffalo 8, and the Patriots had a 14 play, 71 yard scoring drive and the early lead.

Losman and the anemic Buffalo offense then surprised by heading back upfield with a drive of their own. McGahee had early success running against the Pats front seven, and on a 3rd and long in Bills territory, he grabbed a shovel pass from Losman and left New England defenders grasping at air as he raced 56 yards to the Patriots 17 (Eugene Wilson saved the TD by running him down from behind). But soon, Losman was fumbling a snap on a 3rd down play (he recovered), and Buffalo was settling for a Rian Lindell field goal. The Patriots had escaped with the lead intact, and the Bills had suffered the consequences of the kind of error that would plague them for the rest of the day.

They’d quickly make two more. Laurence Maroney took Lindell’s kickoff and veered sharp left, where he ran right through a tackle attempt by Buffalo’s Anthony Hargrove. This left the rookie to tightrope the sideline and race deep into Bills territory, where he was forced back inside and tackled at the Buffalo 21. The play was unsuccessfully challenged by the Bills (they hoped Maroney had stepped out, but replays showed he didn’t) and the Patriots were poised to run their lead to eleven with another touchdown.

The Pats went nowhere. Pass attempts to Caldwell and Watson were unsuccessful (an open Watson was overthrown at the goal line) and on 3rd and long, Brady scrambled for his life, first to the left, and then to the wide right, but he could find no one. Finally, exhausted, he gave himself up by sinking to the ground at the line of scrimmage, but London Fletcher-Baker and others – incredibly – crashed into him just the same. Flags flew instantly, and instead of being held to a 40 yard field goal attempt, the Patriots had a gift first down at the Buffalo 12. A grateful Dillon once again took the first down carry and lugged it into the end zone.

The teams exchanged punts before Buffalo set off for Patriots territory once again. Losman began to find Peerless Price and tight end Robert Royal while mixing in runs by McGahee, and he quickly set the Bills up with a 1st and 10 at the Pats 41. Could Buffalo maintain their wits and mount a challenge to the Pats?

Uh, no. On the next play, Mike Vrabel shot in from the quarterback’s right to dislodge the ball from Losman’s grasp again, and Vince Wilfork recovered at midfield. Would the veteran Patriots make the youngster pay for his shoddy ballhandling?

Uh, no. Inexplicably, the Pats seemed to shelve the quick passing game that had set their first drive in motion, opting instead for seven step drops and deeper looks downfield. Naturally, Buffalo was all over it, and Chris Kelsay sacked Brady, effectively ending the threat.

The threat against the Pats defense, however, continued. Led by the jabbing runs of McGahee, and the continued accuracy of Losman, the Bills drove 60 yards to the Pats 23, with the key play a 25 yard completion to Royal, who ran alone through the Pats defense. With two minutes left in the half, Buffalo sought to cut the lead to 4.

But here, the Patriots defense stiffened, forcing a 3rd and 8 on Losman, who in turn forced a bad throw to Lee Evans that was picked off by Asante Samuel. Samuel, who had a solid game, jumped Evans’s out route when Losman locked on him too early, and he grabbed the ball at the New England 13.

That ended the scoring threat, and the half. But despite their offensive quick start, and the rash of Buffalo miscues, the Patriots had not yet put away the Bills.

That task would be left to the defense, which came back from the break to shut down the Bills until the offense could get untracked. They forced three consecutive 3rd quarter punts from the Bills, who were unable to move out of their own territory after statistically controlling much of the first half. McGahee was slowed considerably, and Losman struggled with numerous third and longs. This defensive turnaround proved ultimately to be the key for the Patriots.

Brady and his teammates finally rebounded late in the 3rd quarter, when the quarterback hit Watson for 20 over the middle before throwing a 35 yard beauty to a speeding Chad Jackson, who was running free in the back right corner of the Buffalo end zone. It was the rookie’s second NFL score in limited action, and as he did with his 1st quarter run, he flashed uncommon ability to separate. If this guy can ever stay on the field, the Patriots may have a “#1” wide receiver after all.

After Buffalo’s final scoring drive could net nothing but another (successful) 40+ yard field goal attempt by Lindell, Doug Gabriel closed out the scoring for the Patriots. In doing so, he too flashed potential for the future of the Patriots receiving position.

The former Raider (did you see Ron Borges’s column today?) started by running past coverage to haul in a well-thrown Brady lob down the right sideline for a gain of 31. Soon after, the Patriots faced a 3rd and goal at the Bills 5, and Brady was again chased from the pocket. Running right, he spied Gabriel (who had nearly been forced across the back line by the coverage) working his way back to the quarterback. Brady wheeled and threw back, seemingly into a pack of Buffalo defenders. But from them an unchallenged Gabriel emerged, turning a sketchy gamble by his QB into an easy touchdown. Brady could only shake his head.

That the Pats were still throwing with a 21-6 lead and 7:00 minutes remaining tells you all you need to know about their game planning today. They had no intention of running the football apparently, as the 23 carries for the backs indicate. Dillon was still brilliant at getting the ball in the end zone.

The quarterback deserves a tip o’ the cap for getting the wide receivers involved this week, more so than any other. Caldwell, Gabriel and Jackson were all given chances to contribute, and today, they did. Troy Brown managed – as always – 2 or 3 key plays. Ben Watson joined Caldwell in leading all Pats receivers (with 5 catches), and he was a threat whether he was striking downfield or settling back behind a screen.

Unfortunately, Brady was hurried throughout, and he took some shots. The Bills sacked him four times, and are responsible for 7 of the 9 sacks the Patriots have allowed this season. Matt Light was brutalized by Aaron Schobel, which seems to happen alot.

Defensively, Junior Seau led the team in tackles. My first instinct is to think he made a lot of these downfield, but in the end, the Pats held McGahee to just 59 yards on 20 carries. He was useless in the second half. Sounds like Junior might have had a hand in that, and by the way, does signing Seau still qualify as a “desperation move”?

I noticed the defensive backs today, including Samuel, who also forced Lindell’s second field goal attempt by swatting away two consecutive passes, including a sweet strip of Lee Evans in the end zone. Chad Scott made a few solid plays in relief, and for all his early completions (including the 56 yarder to McGahee), Losman never cracked 200 yards passing.

Laurence Maroney certainly had the knack for working his way to the sidelines as a kick returner today, which he followed (on two occasions) with a burst of speed that gave the Patriots return team its first real threat of the season.

Of concern are injuries suffered by Richard Seymour (elbow) and Eugene Wilson (leg), neither of whom finished the game. With another road game – against surprising Minnesota – on tap for next week, and games with the Colts and Jets just ahead, the Patriots can ill afford to lose a player of Seymour’s caliber. For Wilson, its a continuation of his recent struggles, and if he’s sidelined, it will leave the oft-beleaguered secondary ever thinner.