There are going to be plenty of Patriots fans complaining about the defense tomorrow morning. Once again, the Patriots allowed themselves to be carved up by a sub-par quarterback and came inches away from blowing yet another double-digit 4th quarter lead. If you watched this team closely this season, you saw all the tell-tale signs of yet another disaster in the making. For me personally, I sniffed it out early in the 4th quarter. Seemingly all game, the Patriots were holding onto a 14-point lead, letting Buffalo cut it to seven, and then extending the lead back to 14 points. However, the offense came up short late in the 3rd and had to settle for a field goal. Suddenly, the Patriots were up only 10 and with Buffalo driving, I couldn't help but think that this was a "sucker's lead" for New England.
Right then and there, I knew we would find out what this team is really made of. Would they wilt again, just like they did against Baltimore, Seattle, and New York? Or would this team rise to the occasion and either get the decisive score on offense or the big stop on defense? The answer was a little bit of both. The defense bent, but didn't break as Devin McCourty was able to force a fumble from Fred Jackson on the 1-yard line. The Patriots offense then sputtered and went three and out. Given their field position, it's hard to nail the offense for the lack of production there, although Welker did drop what would have, at worst, been close to a 1st down catch. The Pats' D was subsequently carved up for a touchdown, which put Buffalo within three with over seven minutes left in the game.
Now it was time for the offense to shine and put this game away with a signature drive. A ten point lead here would have sealed the deal. In the past few weeks, this would have been three-and-out territory for New England. Instead, Tom Brady and his crew chewed up nearly six minutes of game clock with a 14-play drive. Unfortunately, they stalled in the red zone and were forced to kick a field goal which put them in the precarious position of only being up by six.
At the time, the optimist in me was thinking that this was the perfect opportunity for the defense to display some growth and seal the game. The offense had just proven that they could sustain a drive in crunch time, and now it was the defense's turn to prove they could get the crucial stop. Needless to say, the optimist in me vanished pretty quickly as the Bills charged down the field through some porous defense. Suddenly, with the Bills in the red zone, I'm looking at the clock with 34 seconds left and wondering if the Pats could get themselves into field goal range with their three timeouts. Not good. Not good at all.
And you know what was really not good?
Ryan Fitzpatrick's throw straight to Devin McCourty for the game-winning interception. Some may choose to blame Fred Jackson and Fitzpatrick for coughing the ball up at the goal line like that, and that's certainly valid. I, however, will choose to look at the defender who made the play he needed to make to get his team the victory. After all, if Asante Samuel was as good at catching balls thrown right to him as Devin McCourty was today, then the Patriots would have gone 19-0 and own a fourth Super Bowl title.
Was this a pretty win? Absolutely not. The Pats benefitted greatly from a huge number of Buffalo penalties early on. They also had their fair share of dumb mistakes as well, racking up three unnecessary roughness penalties in the 2nd half to extend Buffalo drives. Some of the tackling was downright horrific today. Yet I still feel that 4-5 weeks ago, this is a game the Patriots would have undoubtedly lost. This would have been yet another 1-point defeat where New England snatched defeat from the claws of victory. But not today. Today, the Patriots offense executed well overall in the 4th quarter. Today, the defense made those one or two critical plays that they absolutely had to make. Today, the Patriots won.
Was today's performance good enough to win in January? Of course not. But it's a win that keeps the Patriots in the bye week hunt, and it's progress. At this point, we just need to see the team continuing to make progress. That, and Aquib Talib hopefully sparking the secondary enough to where they're just mediocre and no longer a huge liability.
And now, onto 6-3 Indy, for what should be a very interesting, and competitive game.