All we wanted was the slightest bit of drama, the faintest hint of suspense.
Just three hours of reasonably competitive diversion on a perfect football Sunday -- if you spent it in a warm place equipped with a television.
But as the skies grew grayer and grayer and the snow swirled outside Judi's Lounge, the New England Patriots made one thing perfectly clear, if it wasn't already: The defending Super Bowl champions may not be the best team in football, but they're a hell of a lot better than the Bills. Watching the Patriots prove it for three hours was the sporting equivalent to sitting through a really lousy sequel to a movie you hated. This one was so dismal, a large gathering clearly ready to get boisterous at the first sign of encouragement steadily had the life sucked from it by what was happening on the three television screens.
Judi tried her best to keep her patrons in it, keeping up the chatter on the rare occasions the Bills did anything to chatter about.
"Here we go," she'd say while toting a tray of wings in one hand and a pitcher of beer in the other, hoping to stave off the fan exodus that usually accompanies a blowout.
As it turned out, the wings and suds kept people around much longer than anything the Bills did.
Buffalo held the edge in just about every statistical category that usually matters -- total yards, third-down conversions, time of possession. All of which shows just how little statistics mean when one team makes every meaningful play and the other commits five turnovers.
The Patriots defense let Drew Bledsoe move the Bills up and down the field -- until Buffalo got within scoring range. New England's offense sputtered at times -- once it had built a 20-0 lead.
Complete dominance is very rarely entertaining, unless you like that sort of thing. There wasn't much to like about Buffalo's performance in the New England's new home digs, Gillette Stadium.
But that was nothing new. As you'll recall, Buffalo coach Gregg Williams surrendered early in the third quarter of the teams' first meeting a month earlier by punting on fourth-and-2 from New England's 32-yard line while down by 10 points. From that point until the moment Adam Vinatieri's second field goal flew through the uprights on Sunday, the Patriots scored 41 points while the Bills managed zero.
By that juncture, we were reduced to analyzing how good the Patriots' new environs look, and how cheesy Buffalo's road uniforms appear.
"They look like the Montreal Alouettes," Bruce fairly spat after the Bills defenders made a particularly futile attempt at tackling Antowain Smith.
The final score, one of the most deceptive in recent memory, was only 27-17. It might as well have been 270-17. The Bills lost the coin toss, and things pretty much went downhill from there.
The Patriots jumped on Buffalo's collective chest from the game's first play, a 41-yard bomb from Tom Brady to Deion Branch, and never removed their boots from the Bills' chests the rest of the afternoon.
New England scored on its first four possessions, taking a 17-0 lead with more than three minutes left in the opening quarter. It was 20-0 before Buffalo managed a point, and it could have been worse -- the Patriots' two field goals came only after touchdown passes had been wiped out by penalties.
The Bills' last, best chance to stem the Patriots' onslaught came early in the second quarter. An efficient mix of passes and Travis Henry runs took Buffalo to New England's 1-yard line. On first down, Henry fumbled at the goal line, but rookie right tackle Mike Williams came up with the loose ball.
Instead of bashing Henry up the middle again, or letting Bledsoe toss up a quick fade pattern to Eric Moulds, or doing anything else that football teams generally do in such situations, the Bills decided to get creative.
Bledsoe rolled right, and rolled right, and rolled right, until every Buffalo receiver had finished his pattern and started surveying the stands for attractive spectators. Only then did Bledsoe snap out of his Rob Johnson moment and throw the ball.
But instead of taking the sensible option -- launching it as far out of the end zone as possible -- he tried firing one back across his body to Dave Moore. Unfortunately, the portion of the Patriots defense not chasing Bledsoe had long since congregated around the Bills' backup tight end. Safety Tebucky Jones gladly accepted Bledsoe's gift, eliciting the day's loudest collection of moans and curses from the assemblage at Judi's.
With good reason. That much moving, waiting and watching when you have roughly 36 inches of real estate to traverse is a sure sign of panic, a state of mind the Bills entered right around the time Brady hit that first pass to Branch.
Or maybe before. Despite all the hype this week about how much better prepared Buffalo and Bledsoe would be for whatever Patriots coach/Bills arch-nemesis Bill Belichick threw at them this time around, Bledsoe Bowl II proved little more than a re-run.
And a remarkably dull one, at that.
BILLS MVP: This is a tough one. Bledsoe put up some laudable numbers (32-of-51 for 328 yards and two touchdowns) and one putrid one (four interceptions). So he's out.
So is Henry, who ran well but against a defense purely protecting against the big play for the last three quarters.
Price had good stats (nine catches, 105 yards). He also killed Buffalo's first drive when he turned upfield before the snap, negating a 27-yard third-down completion to Jay Riemersma that would have put Buffalo at New England's 15-yard line. And fumbled away the Bills' final glimmer of hope early in the fourth quarter, after they had cut the gap to 10 points and forced consecutive New England punts.
The entire defense, as usual, disqualified itself from consideration early on.
So we'll give this one to Moulds, who scored both Buffalo's touchdowns, one on a single-handed catch worthy of every highlight film, regardless of the score.
PATRIOTS MVP: While Bledsoe piled up empty yards, Brady made just about every play necessary and didn't turn the ball over once.
REVENGE IS SWEET (PART IV): In four games against Buffalo since the Bills unceremoniously dumped their former No. 1 pick, Antowain Smith has gouged his former team for 374 yards and four rushing touchdowns, as well as the two scoring passes he caught at Ralph Wilson Stadium in November. We won't even mention that Super Bowl ring he got in the interim.
DULLEST COMEBACK DRIVE: Needing three scores to tie the game in the fourth quarter, the Bills took 18 plays and almost five minutes of game time to cover 88 yards and post a touchdown utterly without meaning.
WING REPORT: BillStuff's first game-day trip to Judi's yielded, without much competition, the season's best wings to date. This was one sequel that didn't disappoint.
Perfectly cooked, with sauce you fondly recall hours, even days later, and copious amounts of thick, tangy blue cheese, wings just don't get much better than this. We withheld the highest possible grade following our first visit for the petty reason that it was so early in the season. After this batch left a trio of BS staffers scrambling for the last wing, then picking at pieces of stray skin at the bottom of the basket and even finishing the celery (which was cold and crisp), we have no such reservations about rewarding perfection. Grade: A+.
BS FANS OF THE WEEK: The 29 loyalists who stayed in their seats until the bitter end.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||December 10 2002|