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Bruschi proves he's a key piece

FOXBOROUGH -- Tedy Bruschi survived. So did his team. Fixate on that and forget about the rest if you can.

The Patriots won last night, beating the stumbling Buffalo Bills, 21-16, on a late score with 5:32 to play. Tell yourself the rest doesn't matter. They won the game.

They didn't win by much and they didn't show any significant defensive improvement except inside the red zone but they won the game and for now that is all you've got to hold on to. For now it is enough.

For two weeks the return of Bruschi after an eight-month layoff following a stunning stroke several days after he returned from the Pro Bowl in February was all Patriot fans could think about. The very soul of their defense was coming back. Now things would be different. The problems that had been plaguing their injury-riddled defense for six inconsistent weeks soon would be solved. He was back.

Bruschi heard the first cheer at 4:47 p.m. as he walked alone from the parking lot toward the front door of Razor Blade Field. For an instant he looked to his left, a slight smile passing across his face but just as quickly as it appeared it faded and he was again fixated on only one thing. Getting to work.

Not many people look forward to working on Sunday, but Bruschi had been waiting eight months for this day. Eight months of struggle and worry and, yes, a touch of fear. Eight months to get back out on the piece of real estate he loves most in New England.

Just under four hours later, Bruschi became the first known person to come back from a stroke to again ply his trade in the National Football League and he wasted no time making obvious why he was there. He made the third tackle of the game, needing only 62 seconds to slam his body into Buffalo running back Willis McGahee and wrestle him to the ground. When his name was announced the crowd went berserk. Bruschi did not, acting like he had done this many times before. Which he had.

Earlier, when the defensive starters were announced, Bruschi's name was called last and it received a thunderous ovation. For a moment he acknowleged the crowd, waving his arms as he walked down the sideline. Then he stood on the 40-yard line, bouncing up and down until it was time for the captains to go out for the coin toss. He was the first New England captain to hit midfield and when he got there he received a bear hug from his former teammate, Buffalo's Lawyer Milloy.

Minutes later, just before the opening kickoff, Bruschi's wife, Heidi, stood waving to him from the stands. Her smile was radiant, nearly as broad as Bruschi's but his held only for a moment. Then it was back to the job at hand, which was trying to corral McGahee and the Bills. As things turned out, that was nothing to smile about.

Bruschi had returned to much bombast, many of the faithful convinced his mere presence would solve all the ills of their battered and porous defense. It did not. The Patriots won because the Bills are a flawed team with too many weaknesses, a team led by a career backup quarterback who could never make a play for his team when they needed one the way Brady did when he hit Deion Branch with a 37-yard pass immediately after Buffalo took a 16-7lead to set up a touchdown and then hit Branch for a 22-yard gain immediately after Holcomb had fumbled the ball back to New England less than a minute later to set up the winning touchdown.

That was the difference between these teams even on a subpar night for Brady. The quarterback was the difference. The defense, however, was not.

The Bills entered with the 30th-ranked offense in the NFL, a team that was next to last in passing offense and 26th in points scored. The one thing they could do, the one thing everyone who plays them knows they will try to do is, run. Last night they tried it again. Last night they succeeded, rolling up 394 yards in total offense, including 136 rushing yards by McGahee, who ran through the Bruschi-infused defense with the same success the Broncos, Chargers, and Panthers had. In fact, with the same success most everyone else they've played this year had. Bruschi was back last night but is presence did little to change that.

Buffalo was averaging 353.3 yards per game. Last night they racked up 394. It was averaging 125.3 rushing. Last night it ran for 147. The difference between this game and its six predecessors was that with Bruschi on the field, the red zone defense stiffened, not allowing the Bills a touchdown the three times it penetrated the 20. Going into last night's victory the defense had given up 15 touchdowns on 19 opportunities, and the other four times those opponents had come away with field goals. This night, with Bruschi in the middle, that's all the Bills could muster inside the 20. Three field goals. Points, but not enough.

He played far more than he expected, missing only one series the entire night. He did not play as well as he had hoped but, like the rest of the defense, he played well enough to win, which is well enough period.

Not perfect, to be sure. Not The Answer, as some had hoped, but perhaps part of the answer, at least to the red zone problems

''It feels good back to doing what I love," Bruschi said. ''Getting this game under my belt meant a lot to me. [It was a] relief. There was so much going into this. I didn't just jump into this. I physically prepared myself the best I could knowing playing a lot was a possibility. I been training for this for a long time. But I feel I can get a lot better."

He will need to do that because for as many plays as he played, which was nearly all of them, and as many hits as he dealt out and absorbed, which was plenty, there is still much to worry about with this defense. Much work to do.

When you allow your opponent to control the ball for 39 minutes and 20 seconds, it is a problem. When you get shredded for 147 rushing yards, it is a weakness. When you allow one man, McGahee, to rush for 136 yards, things need to be tightened. But the difference between this game and the six before them was the two turnovers they forced and the stinginess in the red zone for the first time all season and the fact that in the midst of their defense was Bruschi, a guy who last night called himself ''a football player by trade."

''I saw Rosevelt Colvin make a play to win the game," Bruschi said. ''That's the way it's been in the past. You don't know who's going to do it or when it's going to come to pass. Rosey was the guy tonight."

He was, forcing Holcomb to cough up the ball with just under seven minutes to play at theBills 23. It came only seconds after Corey Dillon's 1-yard plunge had cut the Bills' lead to 16-14.

Two plays later, the Patriots had the lead and five minutes after that the defense stopped the Bills on fourth down and that was it. It was over. Bruschi had survived the first step and his team had survived the night.

For now that is enough.

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