Already 3-0, they are hard to contend with
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- OK, so now the Patriots are 3-0 on this exhib-, no, wait, these games actually count, don't they?
"It's weird," said tight end Christian Fauria. "It's Oct. 3, and it's our third game. It definitely felt like our first game of the season."
Looked like it, too. The first half, anyway. Before making the fourth-quarter plays that guaranteed yesterday's 31-17 conquest of the Buffalo Bills, the Patriots had submitted a very spotty first half. Had they not been playing a team that appeared to have been issued cyanide pellets by coach Mike Mularkey, they would have been facing a very unhappy plane ride home.
This game was clear refutation of the Bill Parcells adage that says, "You are what your record says you are." The truth is that what you are at any given point in the season is a product of how you're playing, who you've been playing, and (sometimes) where you're playing. No Patriot could be foolish enough to believe they actually deserve to be 3-0.
But they are.
They are, and they'll take it. What? Are they supposed to apologize because the Bills were so relentlessly self-destructive? Let's just say they know that their best football had damn well better be ahead of them.
"We have to be able to put two halves together, be more consistent, and make fewer errors," said safety Rodney Harrison, an 11-year veteran who always has a very good grip on NFL reality.
This was an eminently loseable game, one that was tied at 17 entering the fourth quarter and one that in the first half appeared to mock the football gods who just happened to have put some celestial coin down on the home team.
First there was Drew Bledsoe hitting Lee Evans for a 55-yard gain on the first Buffalo play from scrimmage. Then there was the matter of Terrence McGee's first-period response to a 42-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal -- a 98-yard kickoff return. A bit later there was the astonishing sight of Buffalo punter Brian Moorman mishandling a snap that was just a little bit high right, dribbling the ball twice, and then taking off down the right sideline for a 34-yard gain. Bledsoe immediately connected with Eric Moulds on a 41-yard TD aerial to put the Bills up by a 17-10 score with 2:43 remaining in the half.
That broken punt play so snookered Bill Belichick that during his news conference he referred to it as a "fake punt" on at least three occasions. Surely he knows by now that it was the freakiest of freak occurrences. If it weren't, Belichick would be one of 29 Buffalo rivals adding it to his playbook. The only variation would be whether the punter should bounce the ball two times to throw off the opposition, or perhaps make it three, just to make sure.
Then there was L'Affaire Grier.
On the Bledsoe-to-Evans collaboration, referee Johnny Grier came up lame. Yup, this gave birth to the ultimate "Official Time Out," one made necessary by an injured official. Grier left the game for good with what was described as an old-fashioned "pulled muscle," and while such a happening favors neither team, it did add to the afternoon's overall weirdness. No Patriot could have been blamed for thinking that perhaps it was going to be Just One of Those Days.
And it might have been, had the Bills really been up to the job. But Mularkey's Mutts managed to stick in just enough crippling penalties (11 for 94 yards), or surrender damaging sacks, to ensure a Patriots victory.
"We had messed up so bad with penalties and all that [the Patriots had 10 of them, for 77 yards]," said Fauria. "But it was still 17-17. And we hadn't played well at all."
Among other things, the Patriots were aided by the rule book (Attention, Raiders: see, it's not just you). For whatever reason, if a man carrying the football (say, Buffalo linebacker London Fletcher, who had just picked up a fumble) is tackled on the other guy's 1-yard line, and if a foe (say, Patriots guard Stephen Neal) has just knocked the ball out of his hands and clear out of the end zone, the rule says it's a touchback, and not first-and-goal. Rather large difference. Rather key play, eh?
Now, did the Patriots make some of their own luck when it most mattered? Sure. Tom Brady took the team 80 yards in 12 plays for the tiebreaking touchdown, hugely aided, it must be pointed out, by a defensive offsides call on Buffalo's Rashad Baker that enabled the Patriots to decline a Vinatieri field goal and instead accept a first-and-goal at the 9. Two plays later Brady hit Daniel Graham in the back of the end zone.
You'd have to say it was positive Patriots football when Tedy Bruschi knocked the ball loose from Bledsoe and Richard Seymour scooped it up and ran 68 yards for the insurance touchdown.
Playing half a decent game of football, the better team won. But the Patriots can't continue playing like this, and they won't, say the veterans, because, a month after they started playing games, the true season finally has begun. From now on, the Patriots will be living the lives they've been bred to lead.
"We've had all this time off," said linebacker Mike Vrabel, "and now we can get back into our regular routine. Tuesday off. Wednesday back to work. The families can get back on their regular schedule."
"We athletes are all creatures of habit, perpetual motion machines," agreed linebacker Ted Johnson. "From now on, we are going to be better. This was a hard game for us to stomach. We'd look good on offense, then bad. We'd look good on defense, then bad. We never had it under control. It was good to get out of here with a win."
From this point on, it's not always 1 o'clock Sunday. They're going to have their Sunday nights and their Monday nights, but that's OK, because it all comes with the territory when you win Super Bowls ("I'll take the schedule every year," said Johnson, "if that's why we have it"). Starting today, they will be back into a routine they know.
"I don't think you'll really see what kind of team we have until we've played six or seven games in a row," Fauria said.
The 2004 New England Patriots are just getting by, and they've still got three one-game winning streaks (Hi, Bill) in this exhib- , sorry, early season. May everyone concerned take this as a compliment.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.