Underdog, gritty Patriots are back

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – In the final, furious seconds, as his New England Patriots were stealing a victory, as Tom Brady(notes) was shaking off doubts with two touchdown passes in 1:16, as a backup linebacker was causing a special teams fumble, as the kicker was recovering it and as a defensive line that had been pushed around for 59 minutes finally mounted a relentless rush, Bill Belichick's mind flashed back.

To 2001.

"We were down 10 to Oakland, [10] against San Diego [and won]. It was similar," Belichick said Monday, moments after the Patriots' latest improbable victory, a 25-24 stunner over a Buffalo Bills team that had led by 11 with less than six minutes remaining.

Patriots fans had flooded Foxborough on Monday expecting a return to 2007. Tom Brady was back. Randy Moss(notes) was ready. Fifty more touchdown passes seemed plausible. The Bills entered the game looking helpless, a 13.5-point underdog that had recently fired its offensive coordinator.

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Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather (31) strips the ball from the Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin, center, for a fumble in the fourth quarter.
(AP Photo)

The return of the empire was expected, New England overworking the scoreboard en route to an easy victory, the way it ran its record to 18-0 before falling in Super Bowl XLII.

Instead these Patriots may be a different version of their near decade-long dynasty, the plucky team from that '01 season, the one that relied on all 53 players making contributions to win by the slimmest of margins.

That was a club that was hailed for its togetherness, cohesiveness and attitude. That was a team that chose to be introduced as a group before beating the star-studded Rams in the Super Bowl.

That was a team that found ways to win, that left opponents like these Bills mumbling to themselves in a quiet locker room or, in the case of Terrell Owens(notes), storming out in frustration without saying a word.

Perhaps New England will shake off the rust and return to the offensive pyrotechnics. After all, this was Brady's first game back from a knee injury sustained a year ago. His 39-of-53 passing for 378 yards and two touchdowns was bolstered by the fact that he got better as the game went on.

Even if Brady's lost a little something, though (say, just 30 TDs), if the defense can't quite recover from the departure of so many veteran stars (not to mention the knee injury that knocked Jerod Mayo out of this game), in the end New England can fall back on an old position.

They know how to win games. They have a coach that makes sure of it.

"It's Belichick," said veteran running back Kevin Faulk(notes). "He coaches us into these situations, to be ready for any situation that comes up. And there were a lot of situations that came up."

With 5:32 remaining, an inspired Buffalo team led 24-13. The Patriots had been off-kilter all night, missing on key conversions, botching a field goal and even having Brady throw a pick-six to a defensive lineman.

Yet there was no panic on the sideline. Brady took the huddle and announced, "We're going to win this game."

And the situations began. The Patriots were patient in putting together an 11-play, 3:29 drive to cut the lead to five.

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Tom Brady had 39 completions for 378 yards and two touchdowns against the Bills.
(US Presswire)

Then, with 2:06 remaining, rather than go with an onside kick (Buffalo put its hands team, not its blockers, on the field), the Patriots booted deep, figuring with three timeouts and perhaps the two-minute warning, the defense would step up.

When Leodis McKelvin(notes) foolishly tried to return it from his end zone, the Pats swarmed. Brandon Meriweather(notes) hammered him and when McKelvin, even more foolishly, tried to fight for an extra yard, Pierre Woods(notes) stripped him and kicker Stephen Gostowski, hawking for a fumble, wound up with the ball.

Three plays later, Brady threw another touchdown. Then Buffalo's final drive was savaged by a Patriots' pass rush that hadn't been seen much of the night.

"It just came down to a few plays at the end of the game and we made them," Belichick said.

When the Patriots were starting this run that would produce four Super Bowl appearances and three titles, victories like these were revelations. Once New England was Buffalo (and Buffalo, of the Jim Kelly era, was New England). The Patriots had a history of blowing games, choking away leads, finding ways to lose.

They had players like McKelvin who considered his decision to return the kick and push for yardage, rather than safely take a knee, and declared, "If I ever have another chance, I would probably do the same."

They had guys like Owens, who simply bailed in full pout.

They had a coach like Dick Jauron, shaking his head and emoting, "It tears my heart out."

They had fans back home wondering whether this was more crushing than 2007, when on a Monday night the Dallas Cowboys (with Owens) scored nine points in the final 20 seconds to win, coincidentally, 25-24.

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Terrell Owens had two receptions for 46 yards against the Patriots, in his Bills debut.
(Getty Images)

Starting in 2001 though, New England learned how to apply pressure and let the other guy collapse and wallow in misery. For going on nine seasons now, the Pats have left opposing clubs cursing the circumstances and questioning the details. At some point, it stopped being luck.

The 2007 Patriots were the aberration, not the prototype. No one does what that team did.

Belichick's powerhouse wasn't built on cruising to victories, but on carving them out. He's been cold-blooded through the years in demanding perfection from young players, fostering an environment of accountability from Brady on down, and cutting veteran stars at the first sign of weakness. He always believes the team will respond.

"We've definitely got a different look," offensive lineman Matt Light(notes) said of all the departures. "But, you know, leadership is a funny thing. I wouldn't say that there's any one guy in here that's going to make or break this team."

And no one player is going to lead them.

"A lot of people [are] saying we lost a lot of guys on defense and where's the leadership going to come from," Faulk said. "It's from everybody. It starts with the coach."

So on a night that looked so disastrous, that showed a team had so much work to do ("There's no telling what kind of lashings we're going to get," said Randy Moss), that displayed so many limitations that may prove impossible to fix, New England won anyway. The old-school way.

"It's hard to win in this league," Belichick said.

It was in 2001. It wasn't in 2007.

It is again now, and no one here seems too worried about that.

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