Eric Lee said all the right things while sitting down at his locker stall after the game, adhering to one of the tenets set forth by the Patriots under Bill Belichick: Never publicly disrespect an opponent. Breaking one of the cardinal rules is grounds for dismissal and, therefore, becoming an ex-Patriot.
You should know that Lee actually was an expatriate of the Bills, who signed him in September and kept him on the practice squad. New England signed him Nov. 21 and five days later turned him loose in a win over the Dolphins. On Sunday, he returned to New Era Field and tormented the Bills in a 23-3 victory.
Lee wasted little time making an impact against his former teammates, intercepting Tyrod Taylor's pass near the end zone on the first series, sacking Taylor later in the game, batting down one pass, picking up a half-sack and finishing with four tackles while helping the Pats hold the Bills to a field goal.
"He's a beast," said former Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who signed a five-year contract worth $65 million with the Patriots in the offseason. "He makes plays. He comes in, works hard. He has great athleticism and makes plays."
Look, I'm not going to attempt to kid anybody. I didn’t know Eric Lee from Spike Lee before watching him play Sunday, but anyone sitting in the stands could see the guy was blessed with athletic ability. He comes fast off the ball and knows how to use his smaller frame against bulky offensive linemen you see in the NFL.
Just so we're straight: Lee wasn't good enough to get on the field for a team that missed the playoffs for 17 straight seasons, a team that gave up 105 points during the three-game losing streak and had problems getting pressure on quarterbacks, but he was plenty qualified to play a pivotal role for the Super Bowl champions.
"I don't want to get too much into the politics of it," Lee said. "They had me as someone valuable and kept me around. I have the utmost respect for them for the opportunity that they gave me and everything like that. Obviously, the teammates, they brought me in like I was one of them."
Too bad he's still not one of them. The Bills could use him. Instead, he joined a long list of former Bills who contributed to the Patriots' success. Signing Lee was classic Belichick. The hooded genius beats the Bills with his guys before beating the Bills with their guys because, well, that's what elite coaches do.
For years, Belichick knew the Bills' roster better than the Bills did. It goes back 15 years to trading Drew Bledsoe to the Bills, convinced he was good enough to help Buffalo beat other teams in the AFC East but not effective enough to beat New England when it mattered. He effectively used Bledsoe while the Bills paid him.
Running back Antowain Smith was a former first-round pick who played his first four seasons with the Bills and won two Super Bowls with the Patriots. Ted Washington played a role on that team. Belichick found value in Sammy Morris after he played for Buffalo and Miami. Scott Chandler left the Bills for the Pats.
It seems like it never ends.
Defensive tackle Alan Branch was waived by Buffalo after he was arrested for DUI, signed with New England and has been a key figure on defense. The Bills couldn't figure out how to use Chris Hogan before watching him roast the Steelers for nine catches and 180 yards and two touchdowns in the AFC Championship Game last year.
Gilmore had a rough start but has been playing at a high level while the Patriots held their opponents to 17 points or less during an eight-game winning streak. Mike Gillislee hasn't played much, but he contributed to the Bills last season. It was surprising Goose Gronkowski, who played one game for the Bills before the Pats signed him, didn't come back and haunt Buffalo.
OK, you get the point.
Lee simply wanted an opportunity. He came out of nowhere with the Pats and had a sack against the Dolphins before showing the Bills what they were missing. He was watching Taylor's eyes while the Bills' quarterback was under duress on first-and-goal from the 6-yard line before making his first career interception at the 1.
"Probably the turning point in the game," Pats linebacker David Harris said. "That was huge. Buffalo was definitely driving on us. He made a big play for us. It's a credit to him and his position coach (Brendan Daly). We make sure everybody is prepared. It's not just the first 11."
It's hard to fathom a play on the first series becoming the turning point, but it was true. The Bills never fully recovered after marching down the field and coughing up the ball. Stephen Hauschka kicked a 49-yard field goal in the second quarter, and the Patriots shut out the Bills in the second half.
Lee was an undrafted free agent from the University of South Florida and a very good athlete at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds. Who knows why all 32 teams, including the Patriots, passed on him in the draft, but there's a good chance they couldn't get past his size when evaluating his position.
On paper, he looks like a tweener, two small to play defensive end and too slow to play linebacker. On the field, he looks like a football player. Belichick isn't like most coaches who get bogged down with numbers when sizing up players. He has a keen eye for identifying players who perform on Sundays.
Lee sacked Taylor on the second series and batted down a pass intended for LeSean McCoy in the fourth quarter. He met Malcolm Brown at the quarterback in the fourth quarter, dragging down Nathan Peterman for a 5-yard loss. He played the Patriot Way, which begins with this:
Do Your Job.
"It's awesome," Lee said. "It's something that I've been telling myself all year, that I want to contribute. I'm feeling comfortable and learning and being able to prepare. I feel like those are the things I'm in the NFL to do. When it comes to having a role, it's all I ever wanted, to embrace that role and the passion for the game."