Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Bills' loss brings disappointment for a night, hope for a season

Watching the Patriots' Brandon Meriweather and Pierre Woods rip the ball from Leodis McKelvin's hands still brings shivers up the spine of Bills fans everywhere.

Football prognosticators (especially, shockingly, Tedy Bruschi on ESPN) expected to see a Patriot blowout.  It was Tom Brady's comeback from a horrific 2008 opening-day knee injury.  It was a celebration of the Patriots all-time team at halftime.  It was ESPN declaring the return of the Patriots as a Super Bowl contender.

A funny thing happened on the way to Gilette Stadium Monday night, however.

The Bills came out firing from the opening whistle, stopping the Patriots on a 4th-and-2 on the opening drive of the game.  When Bills' quarterback Trent Edwards tossed an 11-yard strike to rookie tight end Shawn Nelson late in the first quarter, it gave Buffalo a surprising seven-point lead.

After the Patriots dominated time of possession in the second quarter and Fred Taylor punched in a one-yard score to tie the game, it seemed as though the momentum had swung back to New England and the rout would be on.  But Aaron Schobel's amazing one-handed interception and subsequent return for a touchdown gave the Bills the lead back at 14-10, which they held at halftime.

The Bills remained calm and in control throughout the second half, particularly on a 14-play, seven-minute drive that resulted in a Fred Jackson touchdown reception and gave the giant underdog a seemingly insurmountable 24-13 lead with just five minutes to play in the game.

Tom Brady was hell-bent on celebrating his comeback.  The Patriots marched down the field at will, converting three third downs on a four-minute touchdown drive that took them 81 yards and ended in an 18-yard touchdown strike from Brady to Benjamin Watson.

This was the game for Bills fans.  They (I) could taste the victory.  With 2:06 to play, the Patriots had missed the two-point conversion and were kicking off holding all three of their timeouts.  If Buffalo could manage one first down on the ground, where they had been successful all game, the Patriots would be out of time and the Bills would walk away with the franchise's biggest win in a decade.

It never got that far.

Buffalo's second-year return man Leodis McKelvin fielded the ball near the goal line, paused, and decided to bring the ball out for a return.  A kneel down in the end zone would have resulted in a touchback, though McKelvin said after the game that he wasn't fully sure he was behind the line.  McKelvin was stood up by Meriweather at the 25, and held up just long enough for Woods to come along and strip the ball, even with McKelvin doing his best to keep two strong hands on the ball.  Of all people, Pats kicker Stephen Gostkowski came up with the recovery.

You can guess the rest.  Brady takes the field, throws another touchdown to Watson from 16 yards out, the Bills can't answer with 50 seconds left and two timeouts and the Patriots walk away victorious, 25-24.

Every Bills fan I know said the same thing after the loss.

"I knew it would happen."  "What could we expect?"  "Same old Bills."

But a couple days after the loss, the heartbreak has healed and some perspective has dawned on this fan.

The Bills legitimately beat the Patriots for 55 minutes on Monday night.  A team they haven't beaten in 12 tries, and have never beaten in New England.  "Moral victory" is a term that gets thrown around a lot to excuse losing, but I don't think that applies here.  The talent is there, the heart is there, and the effort is there.  The winning will naturally come next, but when?

Tom Brady celebrated his return in typically amazing fashion.  While his timing and accuracy were obviously rusty through the majority of the game, he turned it on when he needed to, putting the ball in the endzone two times in the final two minutes to come away with a win.  He tied a career-high with 39 completions for 378 yards and was the reason New England was 10-for-16 on third down.

The Bills have a lot to learn from this game.  How to win under pressure, how to stop Tom Brady (basically, you can't) and how to hold onto the ball late in the game.  But we learned some things from the young team, as well.  They aren't the doormat they've been the past couple of years.

Their three new starters on the offensive line can be effective at protecting Edwards and providing holes for Buffalo's new star, Fred Jackson.  The no-huddle offense wore down the Patriots aging defense and Edwards looked in full control running the complex schemes.  New offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt can call a game better than Turk Schonert ever has in two years with the team.

When the Patriots come to Buffalo later this year, we'll see if this Bills team has grown up at all from this experience or if their youth will once again come back to bite them where it hurts.

I don't think Leodis McKelvin will be returning kicks in that one.  Just a hunch.

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