By: Bob George/
October 30, 2005

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Rob Gronkowski says he'll be back with Patriots

FOXBOROUGH -- This is why you don't put much stock in time of possession.

The Buffalo Bills wound up with a 2-to-1 edge in time of possession at game's end. In the first half, their edge was about 22 minutes to the Patriots' 8. All game long, the Bills had been killing the champions in their crib, mixing in a punishing running attack with more blitzkriegs against the pitiful Patriot secondary. With 10:07 left in the game, the Bills led, 16-7, and had totally and completely dominated the Patriots.

It took key defensive plays by Rosevelt Colvin and, of all people, Hank Poteat to keep the Bills off the scoreboard, while Tom Brady and Corey Dillon awoke and did what they do. The end result was two late Patriot touchdowns and a tough 21-16 win at Gillette Stadium on Sunday night. The game, which featured the much heralded return of linebacker Tedy Bruschi, will instead feed the Patriot naysayers with more fodder for discussion regarding the demise of the team, as this win could very well be construed as merely squeaking by at home against a team in disarray.

Cut and dry, the Patriots as currently constructed might win the division and maybe advance a little bit in the playoffs, but that may be all. The Patriots may turn into the 2005 Red Sox, in that they are good enough to contend for the big prize but too injured to win it. Whereas the Red Sox needed Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke to be healthy, the loss of players like Matt Light, Rodney Harrison, Tyrone Poole and Randall Gay are killing the Patriots right now, and the Bills in the end weren't good enough to finish the deal and put the Patriots away.

Teams continue to pick on Duane Starks, and with good reason. Tonight, the former Raven cornerback gave up a 55-yard touchdown pass to Eric Moulds. Some experts blame the coverage schemes and communication and not Starks, but picking on Starks has become a consistent thing. The common fix would be for Eugene Wilson to provide some help from the free safety position, which in this case could fall in the lap of Eric Mangini. But this has not been a problem to this degree at all in the last several years, and wideouts have been killing Starks, not just beating him.

Overall, the pass defense has been substandard, Starks notwithstanding. Because of the situation at cornerback, the Patriots have gone more to a basic zone scheme instead of man-to-man, what the Patriots used to do with Ty Law and whoever was his partner (Otis Smith, Poole, among others). What defenses have been doing, and what Kelly Holcomb did at times tonight, is finding zone seams on slants and cuts, and the Patriots have been giving up 7-12 yards a pop when this happens. The Patriots would be doing this to stay out of long gainers. But the yardage gained on the Patriots between the 20s (Holcomb finished with 263 yards passing) has been telling.

The other area where injuries have been damaging is in the offensive line. Nick Kaczur, while learning as well as he can, continues to show some rookie problems in playing the key left tackle position in place of Light. Aaron Schobel had a stellar game, with two sacks of Brady and a fumble he both forced and recovered. Kaczur having to play in place of Light has hampered the development of fellow rookie Logan Mankins at left guard; when the Patriots finally did make their play in the end, it was largely runs up the middle or to the right behind Stephen Neal and Tom Ashworth.

That said, here is what coaching adjustments can fix.

Team discipline was lacking at times, something very uncharacteristic in the Bill Belichick era. At the end of the first half, a 39-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri was wiped out thanks to a delay of game penalty, and the future Hall of Fame kicker pushed the 44-yard retry wide left. Then on the first play of the fourth quarter, Rosevelt Colvin was flagged for a stupid personal foul with a blatant late hit after a play was over.

Willis McGahee gouged the Patriots for 136 yards on 31 carries, most of it up the middle. Bruschi cannot do it all by himself, and played a respectable first game of the season. The problem here is Vince Wilfork, who continues to get outplayed by the opposing centers. When runners like McGahee (who is good, but not nearly as great as he says he is) are able to run that well up the gut against the Patriots, Wilfork needs to step up and play to his expected level. With Richard Seymour still out, the Patriots were forced to go with a base 3-4.

As for the secondary, solutions are hard to come by. Asante Samuel and Eugene Wilson had very good games. Arturo Freeman had a generally poor game and showed bad tackling technique most all game long. The best thing you could do would be to rotate Wilson in cover two on Starks' side of the ball, and always make sure he has double-cover help. Playing centerfield is not the answer, as the play will already have happened and most likely by him by the time he is able to react and do something about it.

Fortunately, two plays turned the game to the Patriots' favor. After a clutch catch by Deion Branch for 37 yards and runs by Dillon set up the former Bengal for a one-yard touchdown run to make it 16-14 Bills with 7:06 left, the Bills took over at their 29. On the second play, Colvin atoned for his personal foul by swarming in on Holcomb, hitting him and causing a fumble, and recovering it at the Buffalo 23. Brady then found Branch on a sliding catch at the one, and Dillon took it in on the next play to give the Patriots their second lead since 7-3 early in the second half.

With 5:32 left, the Bills got the ball at the 47 thanks to a personal foul by Matt Chatham on the kickoff. The Bills drove to the Patriot 38, but would get no closer. After a pushoff on Moulds set the Bills back to the Patriot 48 to bring up third and 16, Holcomb found Josh Reed in the left flat for eight yards, but Poteat came up and stopped him from breaking loose for about another 20 yards down the left sideline. And on fourth down, Holcomb tried another left flat pass to Moulds, but Poteat was right there to stuff Moulds for no gain and turn the ball over to the Patriots, who were able to kill off all but the last three seconds.

The Patriots thus made Bruschi's return a successful one. But the Patriots still have more questions than answers. The Indianapolis Colts come here in eight days, and may provide some answers, many of them perhaps in the negative. If the Patriots play the Colts like they did the Bills, Peyton Manning will finally get his way in a venue which has become a personal hell for him.

But as things go in the NFL, it's a win, and the Patriots will certainly take it.