FOXBOROUGH -- By the fourth quarter, New England's defense had given up more than 350 yards of hard-charging Buffalo offense and allowed Kelly Holcomb and his mates to spend twice as much time on the field as Tom Brady and the Patriot offense. The defense, gassed from its extended workday -- final time of possession for Buffalo's offense was 39:20 to 20:40 for New England's -- had cleat marks up and down its collective body, thanks to the ball-control Bills.
It didn't matter. With his team down, 16-14, outside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin made the game-changing play when he took advantage of a Buffalo miscue, blew past left guard Bennie Anderson, and launched himself onto Holcomb, dropping the Buffalo quarterback for a 9-yard loss. As he landed on Holcomb's back, Colvin forced the ball to squirt out of the quarterback's hands, then recovered the fumble at the Buffalo 23 with 6:14 left in last night's game.
Forty-two seconds later, after Tom Brady had completed a 22-yard pass to Deion Branch, Corey Dillon rumbled into the end zone for the winning touchdown. With that, a gloomy Patriot defense, one that had struggled all season to take the ball away and give it to the offense, had discovered redemption.
''It was a big play," said Colvin. ''We needed it at the time, and I was fortunate enough to be in the position to make the play and give our offense the opportunity to do what it's supposed to do."
New England may have emerged with a 21-16 win, but its defense had been shredded for most of the game. Holcomb found Eric Moulds in the underbelly of the Patriots' secondary for a 55-yard touchdown strike in the third quarter. Willis McGahee racked up 136 yards on 31 carries. By the end of the game, Buffalo had compiled 394 yards of total offense, balancing the running game and an air attack that took advantage of poor coverage and even shoddier tackling.
''We didn't play as well defensively as we wanted to," said linebacker Willie McGinest. ''There are some things we can do better. We're going to work it out. If we don't get better, there are going to be some problems."
But when the time came, the New England defense came up with big plays. In the third quarter, Asante Samuel picked off a pass intended for Moulds, only the second interception for the Patriots this year. On Buffalo's second-to-last drive, after an offensive pass interference penalty wiped out a first-down reception, New England stopped the Bills on fourth down when Hank Poteat and Mike Vrabel wrapped up Moulds (nine catches, 125 yards) for no gain.
New England's red-zone defense, ranked last in the NFL, came through in the first half when Vrabel broke up what would have been a 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tim Euhus.
Buffalo had two tight ends in on the play, forcing Vrabel and McGinest into coverage. Vrabel, still adjusting to playing inside linebacker alongside Tedy Bruschi, closed the gap on Euhus just as the ball arrived, forcing the tight end to miss the pass.
''I was running out of time," Vrabel said. ''He looked open."
No play was more significant, however, than Colvin's rush, strip sack, and recovery that led to the winning score.
''It was a nice play," said coach Bill Belichick. ''It was a big turnover and it gave us a chance to get back in the game."
On the play, second and 7 from the Buffalo 32, Colvin lined up on the right side with the Patriots' secondary in man coverage. There was miscommunication between Anderson and left tackle Mike Gandy, leaving a gaping hole for Colvin to negotiate.
The linebacker, like a sprinter bursting out of the block, blew past Anderson, who barely got a hand on Colvin, and jumped on the back of Holcomb, who never saw him coming.
''When I came over the top, I had a sense it was out," said Colvin, who had six tackles. ''I turned around and it was there. I was just fortunate to be the guy that got it."
It was a breakthrough game for Colvin, who had been in and out of the starting lineup this season. Last night, he was starting on the outside opposite McGinest from the first snap, pressuring the Bills with his speed and quickness. On Buffalo's second drive, Colvin got a hand on a Holcomb pass.
In the fourth quarter, Colvin was called for a late hit, giving Buffalo 15 additional yards when he dropped one of his opponents after the play. But on the next snap, Colvin charged into the backfield and wrapped up Shaud Williams for a 3-yard loss. Two drives later, he made the play of the game -- if not his entire New England career.
''It's a great win," Vrabel said. ''It's what the team needed right now."