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Defense redeems itself, but the offense fails

FOXBOROUGH, Mass – Well, you have to give Rex Ryan credit. He said his defense would be much better against Tom Brady and the Patriots the second time around, and the Bills’ head coach was right.

The Bills’ defense played a terrific game Monday night, confounding Brady for much of the game and atoning for a humiliating loss at the Ralph back in September. They harassed Brady into his worst performance since a loss to the Chiefs on Monday night a year ago.

It was the sort of effort that could have elevated the Bills and announced them as a legitimate playoff contender in the AFC, a team, a team capable of walking into Gillette Stadium and standing up to the defending Super Bowl champion on the national stage.

But of course, this was the Bills, who over the years have turned losing to the Pats into an art form. They gave it their best effort, but it takes more than a noble effort to beat the Pats at home, where they haven’t lost a regular-season conference home game that mattered in seven years.

In the end, Tyrod Taylor and the Bills’ offense simply were not good enough to take advantage of the countless opportunites provided by Ryan’s resurgent D. Brady made enough big plays on a subpar night and the Patriots held on for a 20-13 victory to remain unbeaten at 10-0.

“We’ve come up short many times here, where you think you’ve got them by the ropes, but at the end of the day they find ways to win,” Ryan said. “That’s what championship teams do. We’re not at that level right now, but I can promise you one thing: We’re going to work our tails off to get there.”

This was a ragged and at times bizarre contest. Brady, confounded at times by the Bills’ exotic blitzes and disguised coverages, had to throw the ball harmlessly into the ground at least eight times when he was under pressure and had no one open.

The NFL officials continued a season of maddening calls, negating a potential Brady-to-Danny Amendola touchdown pass early in the third quarter when an inadvertent whistle stopped a play for no apparent reason — unless it was the league getting back at the Pats for Deflategate.

Leodis McKelvin summoned ghosts of Mondays past, fumbling a punt late in the third quarter with the Bills down by seven points. It was McKelvin’s late fumbled kickoff that had led to the Bills’ loss to the Pats in their last Monday nighter here in the 2009 season opener.

Yes, it’s impossible for the Bills to play a night game on the national stage without their fans getting kicked in the teeth with reminders of horrifying losses from the past. Like so many past disappointments, this was a sad tale of opportunities seen and squandered.

For the first 29 minutes, the Bills made Brady look dazed and confused as he struggled to adjust to the Bills’ exotic defensive looks. Rob Gronkowski was barely a factor in the passing game. Gronk caught a 10-yard pass from Brady on the Pats’ second play and didn’t have another catch until the fourth quarter. LeGarrette Blount, the featured back, had five carries for 5 yards at the half.

The problem was, the Bills’ offense wasn’t taking advantage. Tyrod Taylor, given a chance to outduel Brady on his home turf, was ordinary. In the first half, he underthrew a wide-open Chris Hogan, who had beaten his man cleanly and could have taken it to the house.

Taylor missed receivers low, high and wide. He ran four times for a total of 1 yard. For the second time against the Pats, he didn’t look like a franchise quarterback. Taylor didn’t target Sammy Watkins or Charles Clay, allegedly his two marquee receivers, in the first half. Watkins didn’t have a catch until he made a spectacular one-handed grab midway through the fourth quarter.

If this was a strategy by offensive coordinator Greg Roman, it was uninspired. Why invest so heavily in Watkins (who finished with three catches for 39 yards) and Clay (one for 14) if they’re going to be afterthoughts in a game of this magnitude. How does that happen?

“That’s a good question,” Ryan said. “We’ve got to look at it. Obviously, we tried to spread the ball around. But those are two guys we need to get the football to.”

Taylor didn’t throw the ball over the middle of the field for much of the night, reminiscent of his weaker performances this season. It was a lot of stuff to the flats, which suggested that the coaches still don’t trust Taylor to make the tough throws from the pocket.

LeSean McCoy, who loves the big spotlight, had a strong rushing game with 82 yards on 20 carries, including a 27-yard TD gallop that tied the game, 10-10, early in the third quarter. But he dropped a TD pass in the end zone on Taylor’s best throw of the night late in the first half.

That drop was a pivotal moment in the game. After McCoy’s drop, Dan Carpenter hit the right upright on a 48-yard field goal attempt, giving the Pats the ball at their 38 with 46 left in the half — an eternity for Brady. He had his finest stretch of the night, making razor-sharp throws to Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell to move the ball to the Buffalo 20.

Three plays later, James White took a swing pass in the right flat, broke a tackle by Corey Graham and dashed in for a 20-yard TD and a 10-3 Pats lead. It was a crucial exchange, the kind you can’t afford against the defending champs.

On a night when the Pats seemed very beatable, the Bills weren’t up to the task. They made too many mistakes and lacked the killer offense that could have made it possible.

“We beat ourselves,” said Watkins, who wouldn’t complain about his lack of involvement in the offense in the first half. “That’s kind of the way the cookie crumbles. We didn’t do the little things and we let this team off the hook. We played well on both side and made little errors on both sides of the ball. That’s what hurts the most.”

There always seem to be little things that make the difference. White, continuing the long tradition of obscure New England backs having their coming-out party against the Bills, scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 6-yard run to give the Pats a 17-10 lead. White scored his two TDs on four touches.

They didn’t quit. They pulled to within a touchdown and had the ball back with one final chance in the final two minutes, taking one final opportunity to torture their followers. Wild thoughts went through my head as the teams paused during the two-minute warning. Imagine if McKelvin, the goat of that Monday night loss six years ago, returned the punt for a touchdown to tie the game? Of course, this was the Bills. McKelvin signaled for a fair catch, despite having room to run, muffed the ball and recovered it. So all the Bills had to do was drive 84 yards in two minutes without a time out. It was too much to ask. Seconds later, they were back to .500 at 5-5, a glorious opportunity lost.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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