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BILLS CASH IN ON SECOND CHANCES <br> MISSED KICKS <br> PROVE FATAL <br> TO PATRIOTS

Maybe the football gods decided they owed one to the Buffalo Bills.

Maybe the Bills were just plain lucky.

Whatever, fate smiled on Buffalo's team when New England's Adam Vinatieri lined up for a 33-yard field goal with six seconds left in regulation and the score tied Sunday.

"We were kind of down in the dumps on the sideline," said Bills tight end Jay Riemersma. "But it was kind of strange because the wind picked up just as he lined up to kick. We were standing on the sidelines and said, 'Did you feel that?' It was blowing the right way for us."

Vinatieri missed his chip shot so far to the right it missed the net behind the goal posts. The Bills were given a reprieve.

They got another one early in overtime when Vinatieri's 44-yard attempt into the wind fell just short.

Buffalo finally cashed in on its good fortune by winning the game, 13-10, on Steve Christie's 23-yard field goal with 1:48 left in OT.

"It's about time we got some breaks," said cornerback Thomas Smith. "This evens things out a whole lot from last year."

Last year, of course, the Patriots stole a game from the Bills in Foxboro due to bad officiating.

This year the Bills stole one they tried mightily to give away.

"A win is a win is a win," beamed guard Dusty Zeigler.

"It's better to be lucky and good," said Bills coach Wade Phillips.

Time will tell just how good the Bills are. But all the Bills cared about Sunday night was they survived a major scare and kept their playoff plans on track.

The Bills (10-5) remained in fifth place in the race for the six playoff spots in the AFC. They can clinch a playoff berth tonight if the New York Jets beat Miami.

If Miami wins, the playoff race will go down to the last weekend of the regular season. The Bills will qualify with a win over Indianapolis next Sunday in their finale -- or with a loss by one of the following teams: Miami, Kansas City or Seattle.

A crowd of 55,014 braved frigid 25-mph winds Sunday to watch a game the Bills should have won comfortably. The Bills outgained the Patriots, 374-225.

But the Bills almost died of self-inflicted wounds.

Jonathan Linton fumbled at the Pats' 19 in the first quarter to waste a chance to put Buffalo ahead, 10-0.

Linton fumbled again early in the fourth quarter to help hand the Pats a 10-3 lead.

And Eric Moulds fumbled at the Pats' 21 in overtime to squander a Bills threat.

But ultimately it was Doug Flutie's passing that helped save the Bills' playoff standing.

The Bills quarterback hit his last 12 pass attempts and 15 of his last 18 to lead the Bills to two scoring drives.

"Doug had a lot of big plays running, and he started getting hot throwing the football," Phillips said. "Doug really came through."

"He was on fire there at the end," Riemersma said. "We went to shorter stuff because the wind was such a factor. The ball would move 2 or 3 feet even on 10- or 12-yard passes."

With the wind negating most downfield throws, Flutie managed 61 yards passing and New England's Drew Bledsoe had just 77 through three quarters.

Linton's second fumble was the first momentum shift in what would be a wacky fourth quarter.

With the teams tied 3-3, Linton fumbled in the middle of a pileup at the Bills' 44. Most of the players thought he was down, but the Pats' Chad Eaton picked up the ball and ran 30 yards before being hauled down by Flutie.

The Bills challenged the play, arguing either Linton was down or Eaton was down after he recovered the fumble. The officials ruled the replay was inconclusive on both counts.

On the next play, the Pats' Terry Allen ran 14 yards up the middle for a TD and a 10-3 lead.

With 8:47 left, the Bills got the ball on their own 41. Flutie marched the Bills 59 yards in eight plays for a tying touchdown -- a 1-yard run by Linton -- with 4:23 left.

New England's special teams then almost won the game. Troy Brown returned the ensuing kickoff to midfield. But the Bills' defense forced the Pats to go three plays and out.

Two minutes later, Brown returned a line-drive punt by Chris Mohr 17 yards to the Bills' 42.

Bledsoe -- who had his seventh straight miserable game -- got the Pats down to the Bills' 15. On came Vinatieri, a career 80-percent kicker.

"I thought for sure he was going to make it," Christie said.

"I think I toed it," said Vinatieri. "I have to look at the film and see if my foot hit the turf first."

The game went to overtime.

Vinatieri missed his 44-yarder (his second miss of the game from that distance) into the wind on the Pats' first possession.

Flutie got the ball at the Bills' 42 with 7:31 left.

He hit 5 of 5 passes and Thurman Thomas ran for 16 yards. The key throw was an 11-yard dart on a quick slant to Moulds on a third-and-4 from the Pats' 38.

"That was a tight one," Flutie said. "I tried to put it on his inside shoulder, and he made a nice catch in traffic."

Christie had no doubts about his game winner.

"I remembered this week to slow down a little bit and it worked out," he said. "Today, Adam had to go against the wind and we didn't. That was a big factor."

Flutie finished 22 of 35 for 212 yards and added 44 yards rushing.

Linton had tough going. He gained 40 yards on 20 carries. But Thomas had 84 on 15 attempts.

The Bills' defense gave up 126 rushing yards to Terry Allen. But it also sacked Bledsoe six times and held him to just 101 passing yards.

"We were fortunate at times," Flutie said. "But our defense shut them down when they had to. And there was nothing lucky about our last drive.

"We believe in ourselves and we believe we're a playoff-caliber team."

If the Bills don't get any help, they may have to prove it on Sunday against Indianapolis.

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