FOXBORO, Mass. -- The NFL fines its club executives, players and coaches who publicly criticize officiating.
Suffice to say the Buffalo Bills are going to be writing some sizable checks to the league after Sunday's 25-21 loss to the New England Patriots.
And you can bet that it is money they will consider well spent.
Practically everyone connected with the Bills, from team owner Ralph Wilson on down, couldn't wait for the chance the media would give them to tear into the officials who made two controversial calls that determined the outcome of a game that Buffalo otherwise played well enough to win.
"This was the worst," an incensed Wilson said in the stunned Bills dressing room. "It's embarrassing to the league. Not that the Pats don't have a good team; they have a heck of a team.
"But we got robbed."
The most damaging call came when Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe, a surprise starter with a double fracture of the index finger on his throwing hand, heaved a Hail Mary pass 26 yards into the end zone to wide receiver Terry Glenn as time expired. The ball bounced off of Glenn's chest, and fell incomplete. The Bills were ready to begin celebrating because they thought they had preserved a crucial 21-17 victory that would have put them in good shape in the AFC East title race.
However, an official's yellow flag came fluttering to the ground. Strong safety Henry Jones was penalized for pass interference on Glenn, setting up Bledsoe's winning 1-yard touchdown throw to tight end Ben Coates.
Instead of continuing to share a piece of first place in the division, the Bills, with a 7-5 record, are now tied with the Patriots for third, trailing the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins, who are 8-4.
"I think it's ridiculous," coach Wade Phillips said. "I've never seen an interference call on a Hail Mary play. It's a shame for our team because they played their hearts out and fought back from behind, and that's all I can say."
"This shows no integrity to our game because this was between two teams out there dying for positioning in the playoffs and the standings and their careers," defensive end Marcellus Wiley said. "We can take a loss, but this is cheating. This is not us losing; this is us getting the game taken away from us."
The Bills out-gained the Patriots, 428 to 259, and rallied from a 14-0 deficit in the second quarter. Quarterback Doug Flutie, returning here for the first time since being cut by the Pats after the 1989 season, completed 21 of 39 passes for an NFL career-high 339 yards and two touchdowns. Buffalo's defense held New England to a mere 44 rushing yards.
But none of that mattered after Jones' penalty.
There was no time on the clock, but because a game cannot end on a defensive penalty, the Patriots were presented with one play from the Buffalo 1-yard line. Bledsoe dropped back, backpedaling just enough to avoid a diving Bills pass rusher, and floated a pass to the back right corner of the end zone for Coates, who made the catch -- his 10th of the day -- inside the end line.
"I don't know why they don't put like three guys on Ben because he is going to get the ball," Pats cornerback Ty Law said. "Everyone knows that. Drew threw a great pass to where only Ben could get it and he came through for us. It was a bigger ride than last week," when the Patriots scored a dramatic come-from-behind win over Miami on Monday Night Football.
The Bills were too angry about the officiating to talk about the deciding TD pass. In fact, they were too mad to even line up for the conversion attempt. Both teams were called back from their dressing rooms, but only the Pats came out.
In what was believed to have been an NFL first, the Patriots lined up for the conversion with no opposition. Holder Tom Tupa took the snap and handed off to kicker Adam Vinatieri, who ran into the end zone for a two-point conversion.
"Who cares about the extra point?" Phillips said. "They (the officials) already gave them the game. They might as well give them the extra point."
Jones admitted he had made contact with Glenn in the end zone, but did not think it warranted a penalty.
"I made contact with Glenn, (cornerback) Thomas (Smith) made contact with him," Jones said. "Then he (Glenn) went up . . and the ball went off his chest and they threw a flag. If I had held him or if Thomas had held him, then I could see it. But you don't call that."
The other ruling that had the Bills screaming with anger came one play earlier in the Patriots' winning drive, which began at their 18 with 1:52 remaining.
On fourth and 9 from the Bills' 36, Bledsoe threw a pass that a diving Shawn Jefferson grabbed while sailing out of bounds in front of the Buffalo bench. The officials ruled that Jefferson caught the ball for a 10-yard gain. The Bills argued that Jefferson neither caught the ball inbounds, nor passed the first-down marker.
"I was standing right there," said wide receiver Andre Reed, who caught four passes for 53 yards and a touchdown. "I don't know if it was the side judge or the line judge right on the play, but he didn't know what happened. He waited for the guy to come all the way over from Boston to make the call. That guy comes running up and they're talking it over, and he said, 'OK, we'll give it to 'em. Give it to 'em.' Terrible."
After a scoreless first quarter, the Patriots took a 14-0 lead in the second on Bledsoe touchdown passes of 2 yards to running back Robert Edwards and 12 yards to running back Derrick Cullors.
Steve Christie, who was wide left on a 35-yard field-goal attempt late in the first quarter, hit field goals of 34 and 26 yards to cut the margin to 14-6 at halftime.
The Bills seemed to take control of momentum on the opening drive of the third quarter when Flutie connected with wide receiver Eric Moulds for an 84-yard TD. Moulds hooked the ball in with his right hand near midfield, then outran cornerback Steve Israel to the end zone. The Bills' two-point conversion try failed, making the score 14-12.
"He had a skinny-post type of ball that I threw a little bit too far inside," Flutie said. "It was a potential big shot by the safety, and he broke in for the ball. Moulds is just a tremendous athlete, a phenomenal athlete. He stuck out one paw, pulled it in, and then he took off. The guy chasing him was Israel, who's pretty fast."
After Vinatieri hit a 44-yard field goal to give the Pats a 17-12 lead, Christie hit a 22-yarder to make it 17-15 at the end of the third quarter.
The Bills took a 21-17 lead on Flutie's 4-yard scoring throw to Reed, capping a 67-yard drive on which the Bills benefited from four Patriot penalties. The infractions allowed them to convert a third-and-6 and a third-and-4. Then, on second and 9, Israel drew a 19-yard pass-interference flag that moved the Bills to the New England 5.
Now, with four games left, the Bills find themselves with no room for error in the race for a playoff berth while trying to shake off of one of their more gut-wrenching losses.
"It's terrible, it hurts a lot . . . it kills you," Jones said. "Until we get past this film and get started working on Cincinnati, it's going to hurt. I mean, I could see if they had whupped us. That's one thing. All I can say is, we lost this game, but the Patriots didn't beat us."
Phillips admitted he was concerned about his players' psyches.
"I'm worried about our team right now," Phillips said. "I don't think they'll handle it like a loss; they'll tell you what they thought about this non-victory.
"There's nothing you can say to the players. They're mad, and I don't blame them. We've got to bounce back, come back next week and win the next game. That's all we can do."