FOXBORO, Mass. -- Willie McGinest did something the Buffalo Bills never expected him to do Sunday night.
The result was a play by the New England defensive end that snuffed out a chance for yet another bit of last-second heroics by the Bills and ultimately led to their 28-25 loss to the Patriots at Foxboro Stadium.
Trailing, 21-18, the Bills had a first and 10 from the New England 49, needing about 14 yards to be in range for Steve Christie to tie the game with a field goal. Instead of rushing, McGinest dropped into coverage. That put him in position to intercept Jim Kelly's screen pass for Thurman Thomas and return it 46 yards for a touchdown to give the Pats a 28-18 lead with 41 seconds left on the clock.
The Bills had one last chance when Kelly somehow completed a 48-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to Andre Reed to make it 28-25 with 24 seconds left, the last of four touchdowns and 28 points scored in the final 8:50.
But Keith Byars recovered an onside kick to end the Bills' chances.
"McGinest, 99 percent of the time, is rushing on it," coach Marv Levy said of the decisive play. "Apparently, he read Thurman slip out on the pattern and reacted to what he saw. The (offensive linemen) had released rushers to get out on the screen and Jim had to unload it rather than take a big sack on the play."
"He's probably the best pass rusher they have," Thomas said of McGinest. "It was kind of a shock to see him drop back and cover the screen. They called the perfect defensive play."
Losses by Indianapolis and Miami Sunday allowed the Bills, with a 5-3 record, to remain in first place in the AFC East, tied with the Colts and Patriots.
But that was of small consolation to the dejected players in the Bills' dressing room.
There was considerable frustration over the fact that Buffalo, with its offense looking as inept as it has all season, allowed itself to fall into a 13-0 hole in the first half.
"We've got to come out and find a way to start faster than we are," defensive end Bruce Smith said. "I mean, we're waiting until we get slapped around or knocked in the mouth before we actually realize we're in a dog fight. You can't do that in this league. You just can't do it."
"I can go back and look at the first two quarters of that ballgame and they killed us," center Kent Hull said.
Buffalo's offense also had a hand in allowing the Patriots to come back from an 18-15 deficit in the fourth quarter by going three and out with 2:47 remaining. The Patriots capitalized, driving 84 yards to a 10-yard touchdown run on a counter by Curtis Martin that fooled the Bills' defense, which, until that point, had done a good job of shutting down New England's running game.
"We had our big people in and we thought they were going to go right up the middle, and they ran a counter," defensive end Phil Hansen said.
Incredibly, the Bills' passing game made nothing happen in the first half against the 30th-ranked pass defense in the NFL.
Working from a mostly huddling, two-tight end scheme, the Bills produced only 46 yards through the air as Kelly completed only four of 12 passes and was nearly intercepted twice. They picked up only four first downs in the first quarter and none in the second, while never crossing midfield.
Buffalo's biggest play in the first half was a season-long 36-yard run by Thomas, who had his first 100-yard rushing game of the year with 119.
Meanwhile, New England's passing attack moved the ball almost at will in gaining 214 yards in the first 30 minutes.
On their third possession of the game, the Pats made it look easy in marching 80 yards in five plays to a 4-yard touchdown pass from Drew Bledsoe -- who finished 32-of-45 for 373 yards -- to Martin.
After stopping Buffalo at its own 42, the Patriots put together a 54-yard drive to a 40-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri to take a 10-0 lead 5:01 into the second quarter.
After the Bills twice went three and out, the Patriots took over with 5:04 left in the half and proceeded to chew up all of it in a 15-play, 63-yard drive to a 32-yard Vinatieri field goal to make 13-0 at halftime.
However, the Bills' defense started to take the game away in the second half.
A crushing hit by cornerback Jeff Burris forced a Martin fumble that Hansen recovered at the New England 37. The Bills' offense still struggled, however, needing 11 plays to move all of 23 yards before Christie kicked a 33-yard field goal with 8:20 remaining in the third quarter.
Buffalo then forced the Patriots to punt. And the Bills -- shifting to their no-huddle K-Gun -- finally showed some offensive life. Kelly directed an 80-yard drive in eight plays to a 6-yard touchdown pass to running back Darick Holmes to cut the margin to 13-10. Along the way, Kelly hit Quinn Early for a 14-yard gain and Reed for a 33-yarder. Thomas then ran 16 yards to the 9 and, two plays later, Kelly found Holmes wide open in the left front corner of the end zone.
The Bills' momentum came to a temporary halt after a 51-yard punt by Tom Tupa buried them at their 1. Two plays later, Kelly, under pressure, was penalized for intentional grounding from the end zone, resulting in an automatic safety. That gave New England a 15-10 advantage with 1:52 left in the third quarter.
The Bills then stuffed the Patriots on fourth and 1 from the Buffalo 27.
And they proceeded to march 72 yards in 14 plays -- and two New England penalties -- to a 1-yard scoring run by Thomas. And even that was hard to come by. It took four tries by Thomas from the 1 before he finally jumped over the top into the end zone. Holmes ran in the two-point conversion to put the Bills in front, 18-15, with 8:50 left in the fourth quarter.
"It was just one of those games where that was the thing to do," Kelly said of the switch to the K-Gun. "Maybe we should have gone to it earlier."
Vinatieri was short on a 54-yard field-goal try with 3:46 remaining. But then the Bills reverted back to their same offensive funk and went three and out, giving the Patriots another chance with 2:47 on the clock.
The Patriots went on an eight-play, 84-yard drive that was capped by Martin's touchdown run. Along the way, Bledsoe connected with Dave Meggett for a 26-yard catch-and-run play to the Bills' 45, then hit Troy Brown for a 27-yarder to the 19. Two plays later, Martin darted around left tackle to the end zone with 1:25 left.
But Vinatieri missed the extra point, leaving the Bills down by just a field goal, 21-18, with plenty of time left to rally.
After Eric Moulds' 23-yard return of a short Vinatieri kickoff, Kelly completed a 9-yard pass to Lonnie Johnson and ran for 12 yards to the New England 49.
On the next play, however, McGinest tipped Kelly's screen pass with his left hand, then gained control of it for the interception and TD return.
The Bills' final gasp came after the Pats, penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct for excessive celebration after McGinest's TD, kicked off from their own 15. Moulds had a 25-yard return to the 48. Kelly then rolled left and threw the Hail Mary that Steve Tasker -- playing for the first time since injuring his foot in the season opener -- tipped to Reed, who made the catch inside the 5 before turning to run into the end zone.
"You couldn't have scripted it any better than that," Reed said. "I'm supposed to be the guy behind (the crowd of defenders) in case it's tipped back."
But it was too little too late.
"It's tough to win on the road," Levy said. "And it's tough to win on the road at night."