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Disaster Averted By Huge Break

Bob George
Bob George on Twitter
December 17, 2001 at 10:07 pm ET

🕑 Read Time: 6 minutes

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Now you know for sure what this Patriot team’s destiny is.

If the David Patten “catch” didn’t cinch it for you, you perhaps send Drew Bledsoe Christmas cards and have a Mo Lewis voodoo doll.

The Patriots figured the Buffalo Bills to play them tough today at Ralph Wilson Stadium. No Patriot player took this 2-10 Bills team for granted. Nobody went into this game expecting some 31-0 blowout or something.

But it might be true that the Patriot players didn’t expect this win to be this tough.

Or that the game would come down to some strange rule that turned a seemingly obvious fumble into the key play of the game.

The Patriots prevailed in overtime, 12-9. Coupled with San Francisco very nicely shutting out the Dolphins, it sets the stage for an AFC East showdown this Saturday at what might just be the valedictory for Foxborough Stadium. The Raider win yesterday may have cost the Patriots a playoff bye week and a guaranteed home playoff game, but a three seed is still quite possible with a win next week.

All this is brought to you by referee Mike Carey, and his most generous (albeit correct) interpretation of a rule that many folks really weren’t aware of.

The teams were in overtime, tied at 9. The Bills got the ball, ran six plays and punted. The Patriots took over on their 20. Tom Brady advanced the Patriots to their 45, with a nifty 13-yard flat pass to J.R. Redmond as the key play thus far.

That set the stage for what may go down as the play of the year for the Patriots, next to the Lewis Dipsy-Doodle.

On first down, Brady rolled right, looking for someone to throw to. He tosses it along the right sideline and finds Patten at the Buffalo 43. Patten makes the catch, then gets coldcocked by Keion Carpenter. The ball pops out, and falls at Patten’s feet while part of his helmet is out of bounds. Nate Clements picks up the loose ball and is tackled near midfield.

Right away, an official could be heard yelling “Replay!” Carey was talking on the headset for a while (only the time looking at a television screen is timed, and the limit is supposedly ninety seconds), then announced to the crowd that the play was ruled an “interception”, and they were going to check to see if the ball had ever gone out of bounds. Patriot Nation figured that at the very least, Buffalo would have possession.

In looking at the replays, Patten made the catch, was clobbered by Carpenter, and fumbled. The ball lingered around Patten’s feet. Clements picked up the ball and ran a few yards. Bills’ ball. Right?

Carey looked it over, then made the announcement that may have greatly enhanced a January date for the Patriots beyond the Carolina game.

The ruling was that while the ball was lingering at Patten’s feet, Patten’s helmet was partly out of bounds. That meant that the ball too was out of bounds. Patten was credited with a catch, ball at the Buffalo 43. Buffalo coach Gregg Williams was livid, and credit the Buffalo fans for not going Cleveland on this officiating crew.

Rejuvenated, the Patriots collected themselves, then Brady handed the ball off to Antowain Smith. He ran into a crowd at the line of scrimmage, disappeared momentarily, than emerged and scampered 40 yards down the right sideline. After a Brady kneeldown to center the position of the ball, Adam Vinatieri kicked a 23-yard field goal for the win.

Bills Nation felt as cheated as Browns Nation did today. But as was the case in Cleveland (where a replay was allowed despite a subsequent play being run), the call was correct, albeit unbelievable that this ruling prevailed.

Patten was the beneficiary of an unusual rule, which is somewhat akin to the rule regarding touchbacks (you saw this in action last week against Cleveland on the Vinatieri pooch punt play). For the ball to be a live ball, Patten had to be completely in bounds, his whole body included. Since part of his helmet extended out of bounds, Patten and the ball were out of bounds. Had this been the goal line, Patten’s helmet being in the end zone would have meant a touchback instead of downing the ball at the one.

Carey explained it after the game. “The ball was loose in the field of play, and while it was in contract with the receiver’s calf, his hit (was) out of bounds,” Carey told “By rule, if a loose ball touches anything that is out of bounds, it is itself out of bounds.”

Don’t ask Patten to explain what happened. According to reports, Patten was knocked out cold for ten seconds by Carpenter’s hit. “I didn’t know where I was. I could have been in Czechoslovakia,” Patten told “I thought I let the team down, but the replay was one thing that went our way.”

This break, which really was a “correct ruling” instead of a “break”, was what brought victory to New England after a bitter struggle with a tough division rival in the throes of a miserable season. Bill Belichick correctly pointed out to his team that this game would be tough, and the Bills darn near pulled off the upset.

The Patriots received another break of sorts, early in the fourth quarter. On third and goal at the Patriot seven, with the Patriots leading 6-3, Alex Van Pelt found a wide-open Peerless Price in the end zone for a seemingly certain touchdown. But the official ruled Price out of bounds even though at full speed it looked like Price clearly had two feet in bounds.

Some people questioned Williams for not challenging this play. If Williams had challenged, he likely loses this one. It appeared that Price was juggling the ball when his first leg landed. When he got full control of the ball, he had only the other leg in bounds. Since this was not conclusive evidence to overturn the call on the field, the ruling would have likely stood. A Shayne Graham field goal tied the game at 6, whereas a touchdown changes the whole complexion of the game.

The Patriots prevailed in a game that they perhaps should have lost. Credit Romeo Crennel’s defense for once again bailing out the offense and lifting the team when it was most needed. The Patriots have not allowed an offensive touchdown since the Jet game. But the offense was pretty much on its heels all game long, and only a break like the Patten catch would bail the team out in a game like this.

Brady looked like an NFL neophyte today instead of the cool veteran he had been looking like all along. His numbers (19 of 35, 237 yards) weren’t much to squawk about. He threw one interception, was sacked four times, and he was the recipient of a hellacious third quarter hit by Clements which knocked his helmet twelve yards in arrears. Brady got right up and trotted towards the sidelines, looking no worse for the wear.

Brady misfired on several passes today, but the offensive game plan was quite poor. Brady fired deep downfield several times and connected only once (a 40-yard left sideline pass to Patten which helped set up a field goal late in the first half). Smith, psyched to bludgeon his former mates, rushed only 20 times (for 95 yards, but 40 of those yards was in the overtime period just after the Patten “catch”). Brady never found a rhythm, and Charlie Weis did not give Brady a game plan that he looked comfortable with.

Compounding things was an offensive line that was being whipped by Phil Hansen and a bunch of babes. Aaron Schobel, matched up against rookie Matt Light, won his matchup battle with ease today and had two of his team’s four sacks. The defensive line did most of the damage, not so much the linebackers. The defensive line was causing way more commotion in the Patriot backfield than perhaps most people thought they’d do.

Credit the Bills’ secondary with a solid game. Clements and Carpenter were making great plays all game long. Terry Glenn, Troy Brown and Patten were held to only 11 catches combined. Glenn was supposed to stretch the field, but on every deep ball the Bills had the Patriot receivers well accounted for. Brady’s pick, on a deep left sideline bomb to Glenn, was by Chris Watson. He made a great play and stepped up in front of Glenn to haul in the pick.

It says a lot about the Patriots that they could win this game against a tough opponent on the road where their offense was handcuffed all game long. But there is also an old saying that applies here: “Sometimes you have to be lucky rather than good.” Today the Patriots were more lucky than they were good, and this luck may eventually define their season more than Brady will.

The Patriots are now positively buoyant as they head home for their division-deciding tilt against Miami this Saturday. They are 9-5. Miami is down, and will be tired after their second straight short week. It should be a great regular season farewell for what used to be called Schaefer Stadium.

And many Patriot fans will drink toasts to Carey’s good health tonight and all week long. Carey did rule correctly, but it was a play that easily could have gone Buffalo’s way. But it went the Patriots’ way, and that is why the Patriots are 9-5 and the Bills are 2-11.

Call it a break, call it lucky, call it whatever.

Or just call it a win. That’s all that really matters.

Miami CB Surtain Has Surgery

About Bob George

Covering Boston Sports since 1997. Native of Worcester, Mass. Attended UMass and Univ of Michigan. Lives in California. Just recently retired after 40 years of public school teaching. Podcasts on YouTube at @thepic4139

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