FOXBOROUGH — Three weeks ago, when the Patriots escaped Gillette Stadium with an overtime win against the New York Jets, players seemed almost relieved.
After losing three games by a combined 4 points, they were happy to have made the plays necessary to get the victory, no matter how easily things could have gone the other way.
But on Sunday, after it took a Devin McCourty end-zone interception with 23 seconds to go for the Patriots to sew up a 37-31 win over the Bills, their sixth win of the season and third in as many AFC East contests, it was a different story.
“It was a good victory, but none of us feel good,” said Deion Branch. “We put a lot of work into this game. We knew what to expect. We didn’t do enough to put them away.”
It was another chance for the Patriots’ offense to close out a game, and it did that — sort of.
With 7:40 to play and the score 34-31, the Patriots started at their 32. They passed the first test when Tom Brady found Brandon Lloyd for a 12-yard gain on third down, then later when Stevan Ridley picked up 10 on third and 5, nearly taking it in before being stopped at the Bills’ 2.
But Ridley lost 2 yards on first and goal and was flagged for a false start on second down. Passes to Branch and Danny Woodhead were incomplete, and the Patriots settled for a 27-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski to up their lead to 37-31.
Had they scored a touchdown, it essentially would have put things out of reach. But they had eaten more than five minutes off the clock, giving the Bills a little more than two minutes to get to the end zone.
They nearly did.
The Bills converted a third and 9 with a 21-yard pass to Stevie Johnson. A few plays later, Brandon Spikes forced a Fred Jackson fumble, but Buffalo recovered. Another third-down conversion, an 8-yard catch by tight end Scott Chandler, and a 14-yard catch and run from slippery running back C.J. Spiller put the Bills at the 15.
Ryan Fitzpatrick appeared to have T.J. Graham open in the end zone on the next play, but went to Chandler (incomplete) instead. He looked to Graham on second down.
Only Graham wasn’t where he was supposed to be, McCourty was.
“It was a good pass, I should have made the play,” Graham said. “I take the blame for that one. That might be why I don’t get on the field as much.”
Fitzpatrick, as expected, blamed himself.
“At that time in the game, you know it could come really anywhere,” McCourty said. “You just try to focus on where the guys are that they like to threw to, with Chandler being a big target in the middle of the field, and Stevie Johnson . . . Right where he threw it, I happened to be right there.”
Bills coach Chan Gailey, whose team fell to 3-6, was left to look back on his own words.
“After all the talk I gave about finishing, we couldn’t finish,” he said. “Had the opportunity and could not finish. There were a lot of ups and downs, good and bad in that ballgame, but that’s the bottom line: We had the chance to finish and we didn’t.”
To look at the numbers, Buffalo seemed to do enough to win: 35 first downs set a franchise record, and the defense held the Patriots to fewer than 350 total yards (the first time in 18 games a team has been able to do that).
It is likely of little solace to Gailey & Co., but it is a credit to them — and, in the eyes of some, a knock on the Patriots — that the Bills were in position to win.
Because early on, it didn’t look like they were going to put up a fight.
Buffalo got the ball to open the game and picked up 20 yards on four plays for third and 1 from their 40. What followed was:
False start, tight end Lee Smith, 5-yard penalty, third and 6.
Holding, left tackle Cordy Glenn, 10-yard penalty, third and 16.
False start, right guard Kraig Urbik, 5-yard penalty, third and 21.
As you’d imagine, Buffalo was not able to convert.
“The penalties were unbelievable,” Fitzpatrick said. “Looking at it offensively, third and 1 and third and 21, we just can’t have it. We had some critical holding penalties that you just can’t have and we were able to overcome some of them, but there were just too many yellow flags out there for us today.”
Buffalo finished with 14 penalties (10 in the first half) for 148 yards.
The Patriots’ first possession stalled just outside the red zone, and they came away with a 43-yard field goal from Gostkowski.
On the Bills’ next possession, Vince Wilfork burst through the line on second down and dragged down Fitzpatrick, who lost the ball, with Jermaine Cunningham recovering.
Even though the Patriots had only 13 yards to cover to get to the end zone, Buffalo was called twice for pass interference — the first of which, on safety George Wilson in coverage on Rob Gronkowski, was suspect given that Brady threw too high and wide for Gronkowski to make a play on the ball.
Ridley followed with a 1-yard touchdown, and the Patriots were up, 10-0, with 11 minutes gone.
Even though they kept racking up penalties, the Bills did not fall apart, and began moving the ball. By halftime, they’d put 17 points on the board to the Patriots’ 24, and it was a game.
McCourty had two touchdown-saving plays: the interception and a forced fumble on Jackson at the 1 that was recovered by Kyle Arrington. Had the Bills scored they would have been down by just a field goal with about 9½ minutes to go.
Buffalo began that drive at its 6 after yet another penalty, and two defensive penalties on the Patriots helped its cause.
Earlier in the game — penalty, anyone? — the Bills were pushed back to their 10.
Both times they were able to get out of danger.
“Those two situations are bad defense. We want a team backed up in that situation,” McCourty said. “We just have to play better and take advantage of those situations . . . If we just played more consistent and get those things to happen, we’ll be in good shape.”
Taking advantage of situations. Consistency. Avoiding self-inflicted problems like dropped balls (Branch and Wes Welker had key drops), poor tackling, and unnecessary penalties.
Those are things the Patriots have been saying need to happen. Against the Jets, just getting by did not elicit concern in the postgame locker room.
But on Sunday, it was a different story. As Branch said, it was a win, but there’s work to be done.