September 10, 2006
Tough Battle Decided By Three Linebackers
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
FOXBOROUGH -- It came down to more Patriot linebackers making big plays than those from Buffalo.
You had the Patriots ushering in perhaps the best running game since Cunningham, Johnson and Calhoun. You had a fired up Bills team which seized the emotion early and totally outplayed the Patriots in the first half. You had a home crowd hoping for some cathartic help from the Patriots after a month and a half of a lost Red Sox season booing louder than has ever been heard at this four-year-old stadium.
And when the epitaph to this game is written, this game belonged to three players, all linebackers: Takeo Spikes, Don Davis and Tully Banta-Cain. The Bills led early, the Patriots led at the end, and these three guys were there for the three key plays of the game. What everyone expected to be an easy Patriot home opener instead turned into a tough 19-17 win for the Patriots at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
Before you could settle into your seats and crack open your favorite beverage, the Patriots trailed 7-0. On the game’s first play, Spikes, who always seems to play well against the Patriots, blew in totally unblocked on a blitz and knocked the ball out of Tom Brady’s hand as he was about to throw on first down on the Patriot 21. The ball rolled towards the end zone, where London Fletcher-Baker picked it up and stumbled into the end zone. The game was barely 12 seconds old and the Patriots trailed.
This play caught everyone by surprise, and it sent shock waves throughout the Patriots and the home crowd. With the entire offensive line pulling right to block for Brady, no one at all accounted for Spikes. Either Brady misread the defense and called the wrong blocking assignment, or someone on the line just blew the play. But Spikes had a clear shot at Brady. It was Spikes’ only play of any consequence, as he would get hurt later and not be a factor in the rest of the game.
Even though the Patriots answered on the next drive for a touchdown, the Bills were completely in control of the game. The Bills scored on both of their next possessions on a 53-yard field goal by Rian Lindell and an unbelievable 18-yard touchdown up the gut by backup running back Anthony Thomas. By the end of the first half, with the Patriots trailing 17-7 and Bill Belichick choosing to run out the clock rather than to try for a late field goal, the crowd was livid.
By intermission, the Patriots were completely and totally outclassed by the Bills. Despite Laurence Maroney (17 carries, 86 yards) and Corey Dillon (16 carries, 73 yards) having great games, they couldn’t be used the way Belichick may have wanted with the Patriots trailing. Brady’s halftime numbers were 3 of 11 for 30 yards. The passing game was a shambles, and it was generally due to lousy pass blocking rather than the absence of Deion Branch. The Bills were beating the Patriots off the line of scrimmage, and showing an incredible advantage in overall team speed.
To this point, it was the Spikes hit on Brady on the first play of the game which defined the first half and set the tone. At some point, the Patriots would have to make a similar impactive play to try and get the momentum back.
They would get that play eventually, and this second big linebacker play turned out to be the real key to the Patriot win. Buffalo took the opening kickoff of the second half and drove all the way to the Patriot seven-yard-line. Things looked no different than they did in the first half, and the Bills were looking to perhaps put the game away at 24-7.
It was fourth down and one. Bills head coach Dick Jauron decided to go for the first down instead of kicking a chip shot field goal. He called for a run by Willis McGahee up the middle. The Patriots swarmed the Buffalo back, but it was Davis who collared him and stopped him for no gain. Davis, who is better known for his work on special teams, shot in from the right rear side and tackled McGahee for the game’s biggest play.
The Patriots then took over on their own seven, and finally took off after five straight ineffective drives, three of them on three-and-out. A nine-yard catch by Reche Caldwell for a first down and a stunning 34-yard pass to Ben Watson, followed by two runs from Dillon and two runs from Maroney put the Patriots at the Buffalo 17. On third and nine, Brady found Kevin Faulk matched up with Angelo Crowell and threw a beautiful touch pass in the right corner of the end zone for a touchdown.
On the next drive, the Patriots got six carries from Maroney and a 24-yard catch by Caldwell which set up a 32-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski to tie the game at 17. A block in the back penalty on the ensuing kickoff pinned the Bills back at their own eight-yard line.
It was third and eleven at the seven. Losman, who was hit by Richard Seymour on first down and hurt his knee, retreated into the end zone and was rushed by Tully Banta-Cain. His mobility gone, Banta-Cain was able to contain Losman and tie him up long enough until Ty Warren finished off the quarterback in the end zone for a safety. The box score will say that Warren provided the margin of victory with a safety, but it was Banta-Cain who swarmed in first and made the initial hit on Losman, enabling Warren to record the sack and the safety.
Despite Brady suffering an interception on a foolish pass intended for Watson on the first play after the free kick, the Patriots had the game solidly in hand from here on in. The Bills were stopped three-and-out, and Dillon did enough clock killin’ on the ensuing drive to run out the final 6:15 of the game.
This was another case of the Patriots showing their old championship mettle. They won a game they deserved to lose, they won when they were not at their best, they won against a team they are much better than on paper, but a team which showed up for a tough match and who played well until their lack of experience and talent deficit finally caught up with them in the end.
The Patriots pass blocked poorly for much of the game, with Brady being hurried all game long (Brady finished 11 of 23 passing for 163 yards and was sacked three times). The pass defense also had a rough time early on, as Losman was able to complete 15 of 23 for 164 yards. But the defense was finally able to right itself in time, and the Patriots themselves sacked Losman three times.
But this game is a classic case of “an ugly win is still a win”. The Bills played the Patriots tough in the 2003 season opener, but the Patriots won 17 of their next 18 to win the Super Bowl that year. The Bills are capable of games like this, and remain a few players away from being a playoff contender. The Patriots got away with one Sunday because they have championship poise and the talent and coaching to overcome adversity.
In the end, it was Patriot linebackers 2, Buffalo linebackers 1. It was a tough struggle where a safety decided the game. When all was said and done, the tougher team won.
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