By: Bob George/
December 20, 2009

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- When things seem bad for the Patriots, they should thank their lucky stars for the Buffalo Bills.

The Bills held Tom Brady to very substandard numbers, including only 12 passing yards in the fourth quarter. But a hail of penalties at the worst possible times prevented any chance at a Buffalo upset win on Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Brady connected on a second quarter pass to Randy Moss, Laurence Maroney chipped in with a touchdown run, and those plays stood up as the Patriots held on for a 17-10 win.

Combined with Miami losing at Tennessee in overtime, 27-24, and the Jets losing late at home to Atlanta, 10-7, the Patriots now have a two-game lead in the AFC East. They can clinch the division next week with a win at home against Jacksonville or a Miami loss at home against Houston. With Cincinnati losing a tough game at San Diego, 27-24, the Patriots pulled even with the Bengals at 9-5, the Patriots leapfrogging ahead of the Bengals for the three seed in the playoff order if the postseason began today. Unfortunately, the Bengals losing meant that San Diego won, and they now have a two-game lead on the Patriots for the two seed and the first-round bye.

The Chargers, who clinched the AFC West with the win over Cincinnati, have to go to Tennessee on Christmas Day, then host Washington for the season finale. A win in either of those two games gives the Bolts the two seed. That would force the Patriots to have to host a postseason game in the Wild Card round if they do win the division. The Chargers should at least beat the woebegone Redskins in the season finale if they should stumble in Nashville on Thursday.

The Bengals, meanwhile, host Kansas City and finish the season at the Meadowlands against the Jets. They can win both games, and if Sunday's effort is any indication, the death of Chris Henry last week won't seem to have an adverse effect on the team. The Bengals seem committed to win for their fallen comrade, and it speaks well for the team that it took a Nate Kaeding 52-yard field goal for them to finally fall in San Diego in a game they weren't given much chance to win at all.

The Patriots finish with Jacksonville at home next week, then travel to Reliant Stadium for the season finale against Houston. Houston beat St. Louis on Sunday, 16-13, and at this moment are still alive for a Wild Card berth. With the Patriots finally winning their first domestic road game of the season, that sentiment won't be a factor in two weeks in Houston. Jacksonville won't be a pushover at home next week, given how well they played the Colts in defeat on Thursday night. The Patriots can finish 11-5 and salt away the three seed, but it won't be a gimme.

The Patriots defeated the Bills for the 13th straight time, a miracle given how tough most of the games against the Bills tend to be. In the end, the defensive stalwarts of the Bills could not overcome their inadequacies on offense, mostly at quarterback. The Patriots were able to shake off a moribund second half and hold on for their first road win on USA soil this season, thanks to six sacks of Buffalo quarterbacks, eleven Buffalo penalties, and a questionable decision by the Bills to abandon what got them on the board early, that being attacking the middle of the Patriot defense which was decimated by the losses of Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren to injuries.

On the first drive of the game, Fred Jackson gashed the Patriots for 30 yards on six carries, and Marshawn Lynch chipped in with 20 yards on three carries. Most of the runs were right at the center of the Patriot defensive line, with rookie Ron Brace filling in for the injured Wilfork. The Bills had third and goal at the Patriot two-yard line, but Andre Ramsey, a backup lineman, was guilty of a false start. This led to a Rian Lindell field goal from 25 yards out and a major victory for the Patriot defense.

The Bills would not score again until their final possession of the game, an 11-yard pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Lee Evans. In between, the Bills would go three-and-out on four of their next five possessions, with one of them ending in a missed 56-yard field goal by Lindell as time ran out in the first half. Despite averaging 4.6 yards per rush as a team (Jackson averaged 5.3 yards per carry with 80 yards on 15 carries), the Bills tried to move the ball through the air after the first drive, and it was questionable strategy at best.

Without Wilfork to tie up the middle, Jackson and Lynch ripped through it with ease on the opening drive. But the Bills then tried to mix in the pass, and the Patriots countered it with exotic base schemes including an 0-5-6 alignment with no linemen and constant shifting at the snap. Fitzpatrick was totally unable to deal with the confusion, and as a result threw an interception and was sacked five times (Trent Edwards was sacked once in a one-series appearance, then left the game with an ankle injury).

Leading the way on defense was Tully Banta-Cain, though more newsworthy might have been the fact that Adalius Thomas, a cause célèbre following his outburst two weeks ago after being late for a team meeting, started at the other outside backer position. Banta-Cain had three of the six sacks, while Derrick Burgess, Mike Wright and Gary Guyton had the others. The no-down lineman schemes turned Banta-Cain into the next Reggie White for at least one game, and the patchwork Bills offensive line could not deal with it at all.

Given the fact that the Bills are last in the NFL against the run, Bill Belichick decided to feature Maroney on offense and not Brady. Brady finished with only 11 of 23 passing for 115 yards, one touchdown and one interception and a rating of 59.1. Maroney, on the other hand, had 81 yards on 23 carries for a 3.5 average, but again showed a greater propensity for hard runs and more intensity in his runs, versus the juking he had been noted for. Maroney is going more north-south of late, and he is finally showing that he can use power to generate more yards. Despite his average being lower than Jackson, Maroney was effective in running clock and keeping drives going.

Penalties absolutely killed the Bills. They were flagged 11 times for 124 yards, one of them an interference call on Donte Whitner for 43 yards which set up a 13-yard scoring toss from Brady to Moss, and later an interference call on Reggie Corner for 21 yards, setting up Maroney's one-yard touchdown run. Both infractions took place in the second period.

The Patriots could still miss the playoffs, and the Patriots could still get the two seed, albeit it being a long shot. The Patriots will simply focus on beating Jacksonville next week, clinch the division, and then move on to Houston. They will get a heavy dose of David Garrard and Maurice Jones-Drew. Maybe the Patriots can counter with a healthy Fred Taylor, who knows a thing or two about Jaguar football.

As for the other guys, you simply can't worry about them, but you will anyway.