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Patriots Remain Clear AFC Favorites by Passing Another Tough Test in MNF Win

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterNovember 24, 2015

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) passes against pressure from Buffalo Bills defensive end Alex Carrington (98) in the first half of an NFL football game Monday, Nov. 23, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Charles Krupa/Associated Press

It was an ugly, brutal game full of egregious officiating mistakes, missed opportunities for both teams and a grievous body count. But when the clock hit four zeroes—prematurely—the New England Patriots' record was still as perfect as freshly fallen snow.

Once again, an opposing team with a talented, motivated defense and just enough deep passing ability to test the Patriots secondary made it interesting. Once again, the Patriots suffered major in-game losses to key (and already depleted) position groups. Quarterback Tom Brady was rocked again and again by a Bills defense bound and determined to rough him up as much as possible.

But once again, Brady was good enough when he had to be, and he made great plays when he needed to. Once again, the Patriots overcame early (and late!) adversity to finish off an impressive win.

The box score isn't pretty. Brady went 20-of-39 passing for 277 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Three Patriots tailbacks combined for just 85 yards on 22 attempts. Rob Gronkowski had only two catches. Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal, fergoshsakes.

Yet at the end, the scoreboard said 20-13, and the Patriots' W-L column said 10-0. Going into Thanksgiving, the Patriots are perfect on the season—and they're doing it the old-fashioned way: going 1-0 every single week.

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The Bills, for their part, always seemed inches away from making the sack, inches away from recovering the fumble, inches away from hitting the bomb down the sidelines that would break the game open.

Steven Senne/Associated Press

"We knew we're a better football team," Bills head coach Rex Ryan said of his team's improvement since their Week 2 loss to the Patriots, in his postgame press conference broadcast on ESPN. "But we just weren't good enough, you know, we're not quite there."

The Patriots scored on their opening drive, a Gostkowski field goal drawing first blood—but neither team would score again until the second quarter, when the Bills answered with a field goal of their own. The Patriots' battered offensive line cost them; the Pats' second-to-last drive of the first half ended with a third-down sack. The Patriots also lost receiver Aaron Dobson on that drive, dropping them to just three healthy wideouts.

Not pleased with his unit's performance, Brady got fired up on the sidelines:

The Bills tried to capitalize on the Pats' struggles, driving for a 48-yard field goal attempt, but Dan Carpenter doinked it off an upright with 46 seconds left. It looked for all the world like the teams would go into the locker room tied 3-3.

That's when Brady worked his magic. He hit Danny Amendola for 18 yards, then Brandon LaFell for 24. LaFell's fantastic catch was subject to an interminable review, but the officials eventually got it right. Brady then hit tailback James White on a wheel route, and White took it 20 yards to the house.

In one quick drive, 29:10 of struggleball was wiped off the board. Ryan, incensed with his team's untimely collapse, threw his headset:

On the first drive of the second half, Brady and company got flat-out jobbed. In one of the strangest plays Monday Night Football viewers have ever seen, the head lineman blew a Tom Brady scramble dead, just as he let go of a pass to Amendola that would have gone for a big gain.

NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino immediately took to social media to explain how the officials chose to handle the mistake:

NFL @NFL

NFL VP of Officiating elaborates on inadvertent whistle from Monday Night Football. https://t.co/SBzYHnfwl7

After the key play was wiped out, the Patriots couldn't quite finish the drive. That's when Gostkowski missed, breaking a field-goal perfection streak that dated back to 2014.

The Bills finally took advantage, a LeSean McCoy touchdown tying the game at 10 points apiece. After the two teams traded punts, the Patriots answered—first with a 41-yard Brady pass to Amendola, then a six-yard White touchdown plunge.

Not long after, history repeated itself when returner Leodis McKelvin fumbled on a punt return, setting up a Patriots field goal that would serve as the game's dagger. It wasn't quite the fourth quarter, but at 20-10, it felt like the game was over.

All the pretty football certainly was over: Taylor got sacked. Brady got picked off. Yellow hankies flew everywhere. Reviews and challenges took ages and resulted in official huddle after official huddle. Amendola was injured, leaving the Patriots with just two healthy receivers. Taylor was injured, causing EJ Manuel to spend the entire fourth quarter warming up on the sidelines.

Fittingly, the game ended with yet another officiating snafu: Bills receiver Sammy Watkins caught a pass in bounds with a few seconds left, then scrambled out of bounds without being touched. Rather than setting up a Hail Mary attempt, the officials inexplicably ruled the clock should run out. 

In his postgame press conference, Brady flashed his usual cryptic smile when asked about the officials and injuries. "We've lost quite a few guys," he allowed, but admitted "some of the things we didn't do well have nothing to do with missing some other guys. We've got to do a better job if we're going to score more points."  

In fact, the Pats' fruitless fourth quarter broke their NFL-record streak of 38 straight quarters with a score. This effort was enough to beat a talented-but-flawed Bills team at home. It might not have been enough to beat a better team in an elimination match. If the Patriots want to go 16-0 and continue on to the Super Bowl, they're going to have to score more points with fewer players.

As tonight's performance proves, though, if any player, any coach, any team can pull it off, it's Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots.

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