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November 11. 2012 9:50PM

Patriots Notebook: Mixed feelings all around


New England Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty (32) intercepts a pass intended for Buffalo Bills wide receiver T.J. Graham (11) during the last seconds of play at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Bills 37-31. (David Butler II-US PRESSWIRE)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- THEIR TEAM is now owners of a two-game lead atop the AFC East, and twice as many victories as losses, after Devin McCourty put another in the win column with a final-minute interception that sealed a 37-31 victory over the Bills on Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.

Though Patriots fans don't know exactly how they should feel about their favorite team as it embarks on the stretch run of the season and enters the part of the campaign when the cream is supposed to rise. They don't know whether to be happy with the win, with the 37 points, with their position in the playoff picture, with the apparent potential - or whether to be worried about almost giving another one away, about the defensive deficiencies, about the general inconsistency, about the apparent flaws.

And they're not alone.

In the home locker room after the game, Vince Wilfork and Deion Branch stood only about 40 feet apart - but ideologically the gap may as well have been miles wide. Both were glad to be winners, and acknowledged the game's imperfections. But while one was happy and proud and convinced that between its talent and its belief in itself this team is still destined to be special, the other admitted that even victory didn't send him home from the stadium feeling good about the situation.

So, in essence, their conflicting emotions spoke for the two factions of their fans.

There are those who think like Wilfork, who see a team that's now won five of six, and say that even the nature of New England's recent victories show that it's improving. They don't see that the Patriots nearly gave away Sunday's game after leading 24-10, or that they were forced to escape in overtime against the Jets despite leading by 10 midway through the fourth quarter. They see an improvement in situational football.

"You've seen games early in the year that we lost in this situation," said the defensive lineman. "And you've seen two division games that we won in this situation. Trust me when I say that we are getting better."

They choose to overlook the fact that the Bills set a franchise record with 35 first downs, and accumulated 481 yards in offense, and focus instead on the fact that the Patriots forced two turnovers in the red zone and forced three turnovers overall. After all, those are the plays that won the game. And winning is ultimately what matters.

"Stats can mean whatever you want," Wilfork said. "You can have 500, 600, 700 yards with an L - what'd that do for you? Individual stats, we're not interested in that. We're interested in Ws and Ls."

So they focus on the fact that New England now has 6 Ws, compared to just 3 Ls, and that puts them with the third-best mark in the conference. As such, all their goals - the division title, a first-round bye, a return to the Super Bowl - remain very much in front of them.

And without wins, that wouldn't be true.

"I'm never disappointed in a win, no matter how you get it," Wilfork said. "From start to finish we believed we could stop them when we needed to - which we did. We believed we could end the game - which we did.

"I'm pretty sure there's no team out there complaining about winning a ballgame, and we're not either."

Branch wasn't quite complaining, but he spoke for the fans who say Sunday's performance isn't good enough, especially after the way the first half went. Buffalo committed 10 penalties in two quarters, including three that turned a third-and-1 into a 3rd-and-21, and another 37-yard infraction that gave New England the ball at the 1. Linebacker Bryan Scott flat dropped a floating ball what would've been the easiest interception of his career. And quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick lost a fumble at his own 13.

Yet New England wasn't nearly as good at stopping Buffalo as the Bills were themselves, and the Patriots' offense left points on the field with a couple of critical drops, so the hosts were never quite able to pull away and were ultimately forced to sweat out the final moments.

"It don't feel good, I'll say that," Branch said. "It was a good victory, but none of us feel good."

He spoke for those disappointed by the fact the Pats' vaunted offense again had a chance to put the game away at the end, and failed to do so - despite getting in position for first-and-goal from the Bills' 2. From there they absorbed a two-yard loss. A five-yard false start penalty. And two incompletions. They still got a field goal, but that wasn't enough to put the game away.

To Branch and those of his mind, that's unacceptable.

"We put a lot of pressure on our defense by not going out and finishing the game," Branch said. "We had a lot of time, and put in a lot of work going into this game. We knew what to expect from these guys; they didn't do anything different. Early in the game it was OK, we just didn't do enough to put them away."

After a bye week, and against familiar foe, he spoke for those disappointed by the execution of an offense counted on penalties for 30 percent of the yardage it gained, and a defense that was shoddy in both its tackling and its coverage. Ultimately they survived because McCourty proved as much a safety net as a safety, forcing a goal line safety to go with the game-clinching pick with 23 seconds to play.

"It's not a good feeling because I know we're a lot better than we put out on the football field today. We'll take the victory," Branch said, "but we have a lot of work to do if we want to be the team that we know we can."

Now that's a feeling both factions can agree on.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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