Jerry Hughes has too often watched the Patriots snatch victory away from the Buffalo Bills in what has been an AFC East rivalry that for too long tilted in New England's favor.
How exciting it was for Buffalo’s veteran defensive end to eagerly watch from the sideline as Josh Allen knelt three times to run out the clock to close out a 24-21 win Sunday.
“Man, that was fun,” said Hughes, who was 2-12 during his first seven seasons against New England. “It feels good, to be honest with you, to be on the other side of the spectrum, to be watching our offense hit that victory formation. It felt amazing.”
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And it nearly didn’t happen.
Bills backup defensive lineman Justin Zimmer, who opened the season on the practice squad, and safety Dean Marlowe, playing in place of injured starter Micah Hyde (concussion), combined to create the decisive play with the Patriots in position to at the very least tie the game.
Zimmer punched punched the ball out of quarterback Cam Newton’s arms. The fumble was recovered by Marlowe at the Buffalo 13 with 31 seconds left to secure what can be regarded as Buffalo’s most meaningful victory in 20 years over the Bill Belichick-coach Patriots.
In getting off to a 6-2 start for a second consecutive season, the Bills did so against a Patriots nemesis that entered the game having beaten Buffalo in each of the past seven meetings and 35 of the previous 40, dating to Belichick’s arrival in Foxborough.
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“Honestly, I don’t know what to feel right now,” Zimmer said. “I’m still just like breathing heavy from the game, just excited. It’ll probably take me a good 24 hours to realize kind of everything that happened.”
Of course, Tom Brady had something to do with that string of domination before leaving New England to sign with Tampa Bay this offseason. Brady went 32-3 against Buffalo in setting the NFL record for most wins over one opponent.
Minus Brady, the Patriots are suddenly in freefall. Their 2-5 start is their worst since 2000, and New England’s four-game skid matches its longest since 2002. Their string of an NFL-record 11 straight division titles is suddenly in jeopardy, as might be their 19 consecutive seasons with a winning record.
“This is the third time we’ve been in this situation this year and unfortunately haven’t been able to make enough plays to win,” said Belichick, referring to one-score losses to Seattle and Denver.
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Newton called the the fumble “unacceptable.”
“It affects me more that I still am jeopardizing this team’s success because of my lackluster performances protecting the football,” Newton said. “Coach trusts me with the ball in my hands and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I've got to do a better job of protecting it.”
Newton finished 15 of 25 for 174 yards passing, and added 54 yards rushing plus a touchdown. Damien Harris had 102 yards rushing and scored on a 22-yard run.
A week after being benched following a three-interception outing in a 33-6 loss to San Francisco, Newton was efficient in putting the Patriots in position to win.
After Buffalo went ahead on Tyler Bass’ 28-yard field goal with 4:06 remaining, Newton methodically marched the Patriots 60 yards on 11 plays, and was facing second-and-10 from Buffalo’s 19.
Lining up in a shotgun formation, Newton took the snap and followed a line of blockers to his left. What he didn’t see was Zimmer diving in from behind and punching out the ball, which rolled directly into Marlowe’s arms.
“I was like, five-points of pressure,” Marlowe said of how tightly he gripped the ball. “I’m not letting it go because I’m coming up with this ball.”
Bills rookie Zack Moss scored two touchdowns rushing. Allen went 11 of 18 for 154 yards passing and also scored on a 2-yard run in a game Buffalo never trailed. He had one interception, which led to the Patriots cutting Buffalo’s lead to 7-6 on Nick Folk’s 33-yard field goal with 8 seconds left in the first half.
The game was played in an empty stadium, and amid wet, blustery conditions with the temperature dropping to the low 40s by the fourth quarter. Winds off nearby Lake Erie were persistent at between 17 and 25 MPH.
The Patriots were without several key starters. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore was sidelined by a knee injury. New England was also down its top two receivers this season with Julian Edelman placed on injured reserve after having knee surgery this week, and N’Keal Harry sidelined by a concussion.
TAKE THE POINTS
Belichick elected to take the points and not risk a sack in the final seconds of the first half. With no timeouts remaining and facing third-and-1 at the Buffalo 16, the Patriots elected to have Folk kick to cut the Bills’ lead to 7-6.
Patriots: DL Lawrence Guy did not return after hurting his shoulder in the second half. ... LB Ja’Whaun Bentley hurt his groin in the fourth quarter.
Bills: C Mitch Morse did not return after sustaining a head injury on Buffalo’s opening drive. ... RB/special teamer Taiwan Jones was ruled out after hurting his hamstring in the third quarter.