By: Bob George/BosSports.net
December 08, 2002

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FOXBOROUGH -- Are the Patriots this good? Or are the Bills this bad?

The Patriots managed to win, 27-17, and that score is really deceptive. A late touchdown made the score close, but the Patriots had this one all the way. And this in and of itself is amazing, when you consider the following unlikely factoids.

The Patriots had three touchdowns negated due to penalties.

The Patriots played in total offensive brainlock in the second half. They either sat on the lead or simply showed everyone new and exotic ways of "game management". Did it work? Hey, they won.

Tom Brady continues to show an alarming trend of misfiring several passes. Unlike the Detroit game where he may have been fatigued, on Sunday he looked like he was overthrowing. On the sidelines, he looked like one perpetual adrenaline rush.

The Patriots played a good game, especially on defense. But the offense kept the Bills in the game, and in a way, so did the officials. Still, the Patriots had plenty of game overall to beat the Bills by ten points, and the Patriots managed to continue their second straight late-season playoff push.

As was stated in a previous column, Bill Belichick likely traded Drew Bledsoe with this game in mind. Belichick has come out of these two Buffalo games looking like a man who just opened up another wing in his genius factory. Today's performance by Bledsoe, coming to Foxborough for the first time as the enemy, completely underscored all the logic behind trading him to a division rival.

The Bills, admittedly, are a better team with Bledsoe, as their six wins at this point of the season would indicate. Getting two wins over Buffalo is a good thing, but not if Bledsoe whips tail on the rest of the league. The Patriots have no control over that, but what control they do have over Bledsoe came out in full view for the Gillette Stadium crowd to see.

Like the first meeting in Orchard Park, Bledsoe continued to exhibit some of the negative tendencies that marked his nine-year Patriot career. Most glaring of these were four interceptions, all but one of which falls squarely on the shoulders of Bledsoe himself. The Patriots scored 17 points off of five Bills turnovers (Peerless Price fumbled in the fourth quarter after catching a pass), and the Bills were never able to muster up the energy and stamina it would have taken to overcome a hard-hitting Patriot defense.

If you stop and analyze all of Bledsoe's picks, it pretty much all comes back to his annoying tendency to make plays he shouldn't make.

The first one was the only one that really wasn't his fault, other than it was an ill-advised attempt at throwing over the middle. The Patriot front four got incredible penetration on the Bills' offensive line, all of them with arms up in the air. Bledsoe's pass glanced off of Anthony Pleasant's arm and shot upward. Richard Seymour plucked the ball off of his shoelaces, and two plays later Brady found Donald Hayes for a 9-yard score and a 17-0 Patriot lead. With that kind of a jailbreak coming, Bledsoe might just have eaten the ball.

Bledsoe then led the Bills on a 90-yard drive, and had his Bills perched at the Patriot 1-yard line, first and goal. Travis Henry gets stuffed and coughs up the football, but Mike Williams managed to fall on the football. On the next play, Bledsoe was under tremendous pressure, dropped back, then rolled right, still going back. He then threw a slant pass against the grain into the end zone, right into the arms of Tebucky Jones, with no Bill nearby. Ninety-yard drives that end in end zone interceptions are usually backbreakers.

To Bledsoe's credit, he and his mates never gave up. Down 20-0 at the half, he led the Bills on two scoring drives in the third quarter. It was 20-10 Patriots in the fourth quarter, and Bledsoe and the Bills had all the momentum.

But three turnovers in five plays put this game solidly in the win column for the Patriots.

Price's fumble early in the quarter set up a powerful and short Patriot drive which ended in a four-yard touchdown run by Antowain Smith. The Bills got the ball back and gave it right back, as Bledsoe almost duplicated the Jones pick by rolling right, finding no one open, and forcing a slant over the middle and against the grain. Ty Law stepped in front of Eric Moulds and made the pick.

One drive later, beginning at his own 33, Bledsoe hit Jay Riemersma for 11 yards and Larry Centers for 12 yards. Then he tried to hit Price on a deep right flat route, but hurried his throw and underthrew it. Terrell Buckley stepped up and made the interception.

On two of the picks, Bledsoe made a hurried throw. And on the two others, he had time to throw, had nobody open, and threw the ball anyway. This is likely a by-product of Belichick knowing exactly what to do with Bledsoe, since the rest of the league isn't this proficient at doing this sort of thing to Bledsoe. But the fact remains that Bledsoe still makes poor throws either under pressure or when nobody is open. It also can still be said that Bledsoe is suspect at reading and reacting to defensive structures, though the Patriots didn't seem to try and get inside his head like they might have tried to do.

All this meant that the Patriots could once again get away with less than their "A" game on offense and still win handily.

Brady is going to think that he can never get an even break in this column, but it is all his fault in that he set the bar so high last year. His raw stats suggest a good game, with 15 of 27 passing and two scores, and a passer rating of 101.3. Brady did nothing to lose this game, and he did make some plays today, including a nifty 41-yard pass to Deion Branch on the game's first play.

But that would be Branch's only catch of the day (he got hurt later on a touchdown pass that was called back due to a penalty). Brady once again over threw numerous receivers, including twice to Christian Fauria in the end zone, and twice to Hayes. One has to wonder how you overthrow a 6-foot-4-inch receiver.

The Patriots were penalized nine times for 65 yards. Three of those penalties took touchdowns off the board. On the first drive of the game, Branch made a terrific catch-and-run for 15 yards, but Matt Light was called for holding. In the second quarter, the Patriots snapped the ball to Kevin Faulk, who hit Brady in the left flat like he did in the Miami game last year. Brady took this one to the house from 23 yards out. But referee Jeff Triplett ruled that both Brady and Faulk were in motion at the same time. Finally, Faulk ripped off a 28-yard fourth quarter touchdown run, but Fauria was called for holding.

The officials also had a hand in keeping this game close. During the third quarter, totally dominated by the Bills, Triplette failed to rule delay of game on Bledsoe who proceeded to hit Price on a 16-yard right sideline route on third and 16. Television replay showed clearly that Bledsoe took the snap one full second after the play clock read zero. One drive later, Moulds was credited with a 12-yard touchdown pass despite clearly pushing off Law to snare the ball in the end zone. Both missed calls cost the Patriots 10 points.

In the end, the Patriots won, and none of this picking nits matters at all. The defense hit hard all game long, did what it had to do with Bledsoe, and carried the day for the Patriots, now sitting pretty at 8-5. The Patriots seemed to greatly benefit from the long Thanksgiving layoff, and sideline shots of the players looked like they were generally enjoying this game a whole lot.

You can put to rest all the negative perceptions of Belichick's trading skills, at least for one year. There can be no doubt that when it comes to Bledsoe and Brady, Belichick won this one in a slamdunk, and kept the right man while letting the other one go. This is just like Belichick doing this to Bernie Kosar in Cleveland, except that nobody here is complaining and that everything came up aces for Belichick's team.

Meanwhile, Bledsoe goes away, assuredly looking forward to the next chance he'll get to prove Belichick wrong.


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