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Davie D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: New England comeback was like flipping a switch
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) and wide receiver Wes Welker (83) celebrate a touchdown during the second half at Ralph Wilson Stadium (Timothy T. Ludwig-US PRESSWIRE)
TWO SERIES into the second half of Sunday's game in Buffalo, the Patriots were staring directly at the possibility of reaching the NFL quarter pole with a 1-3 record for the first time in 11 years. Doing so would've simultaneously meant the team's first three-game losing streak in a full decade.
But a funny thing happened on the way to pro football purgatory. And as a result, the historical milestones relevant this morning relate to the previous time the Pats had two running backs surpass 100 yards (1980), the only other time any team had two 100-yard receivers to go with those century mark rushers (Green Bay in 2008) and the last time New England ran for four touchdowns in a game (1983).
Trailing by two touchdowns after allowing Donald Jones to spring for a 68-yard touchdown, and struggling in their execution at key moments, the Patriots suddenly flipped a switch. They ran the ball with power. They passed with precision and purpose. They created opportunities with their defense. Then they capitalized on them with their offense.
They finally — for the first time in a few weeks — made winning plays, the collection of which summed to a 52-28 triumph over the Bills, New England restoring order by climbing back into a first-place tie atop the AFC East and making clear that they still reign within the division.
“We were down 21-7 on the road, our backs against the wall, and I thought we showed a lot of heart,” Tom Brady said. “That's what this team's made of. We're going to battle 'til the end. I know that.”
The quarterback can say he knew — but through the Pats' first three and a half games, there wasn't a lot of evidence to support such a claim. His team made too many mistakes against the Cardinals. New England coughed up a nine-point lead late against the Ravens. Then it failed to convert any of Buffalo's three first-half turnovers into points.
A common theme throughout those 10 quarters was an uncharacteristic ability to finish drives by scoring touchdowns, and in their second series of Sunday's third period the Patriots appeared to be at risk of doing so again. After Jones' lengthy catch-and-run, they responded by relying on Brandon Bolden and Stevan Ridley to move the ball 62 yards, but after a gain of 1 followed an incompletion, the drive threatened to stall at the Bills' 18. That's where the Patriots faced third and 9.
And that's where the game — and the early season — changed for New England.
The play itself broke down, but Brady bought some time by scrambling left, and as he did Danny Woodhead broke back to Brady's right. That freed the running back, who caught a pass and bounced his way to the end zone. That brought the Patriots only to within 21-14, though psychologically it may have meant more than that, snapping the Bills' 21-0 run and finally offering proof that the “We just needed to come back and make it a one-score game,” coach Bill Belichick said. “That was a big drive for us. A bad drive there and we could've gotten knocked out at that point.”
“That third down, if we don't get it, it could be a different game,” added receiver Wes Welker. “Luckily we were able to make that play. Defense got a stop and we were able to score again. It kind of put us in the driver's seat, I think.”
And once there they pressed the pedal to the floor. After Woodhead's score, the Patriots' defense forced the Bills to go three and out, then the offense made an 85-yard march that Brady capped himself with a scamper from 4 out — and with the game even they were only just beginning.
New England would eventually score touchdowns on six straight drives and kick a field goal on its seventh to outscore Buffalo, 45-7, over the game's final 23 minutes and 10 seconds, and while Belichick said afterward that the game as a whole was more competitive than its final score might suggest, that final portion was every bit as dominant as that margin indicates.
When it was over, Bolden (137 yards on 16 carries) and Ridley (106 yards on 22 carries) had spearheaded the team's biggest rushing day since it gained 277 yards on the ground in December 2008. Welker (9 catches for 129 yards) and Gronkowski (5 catches for 104 yards) had each made up for his lost fumble by reaching triple digits in receiving yards.
Brandon Lloyd had made a spectacular catch for his first score as a Patriot. Devin McCourty had a pair of interceptions after dropping two easy picks last week. Vince Wilfork had a forced fumble, a recovered fumble and a pass deflection that led to Jerod Mayo's interception. The defense had forced six turnovers. And the offense had overcome two of its own, as well as two missed field goals, to total 580 and crack the 50-point plateau for the first time in almost three years.
Suffice it to say, it was a win the entire roster could feel good about. “Everybody contributed,” Brady said after throwing for three scores and 340 yards. “It was really a great win for us as a team. Obviously it only gets tougher from here, but we're proud we fought through some pretty tough times here in the second half and came up with a big win.”
And after two weeks that introduced some doubt, they did it by looking like winners.
“We had two really tough losses, games that we expected to win, then you come and you play a team that we lost against last year up 21 points,” said the quarterback. “We showed a lot of heart.
“It was a lot of adversity that we faced, and I thought we did a really good job responding.”
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.