FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Right place, right time.
That’s how Devin McCourty summed up his victory-saving play for the New England Patriots on Sunday afternoon.
McCourty intercepted a horribly-thrown pass by Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the end zone with 23 seconds remaining to secure the Patriots 37-31 victory over the Bills at Gillette Stadium.
Horribly-thrown because it was right to McCourty.
“Just making the catch and ending it,” said McCourty. “That was my focus there.”
We heard a lot about how the Patriots self-scouted themselves in their bye week coming into Sunday’s game. We heard a lot about how the defense knew it had to play better if New England has any hope of making a long playoff run.
What we saw Sunday was more of the same. The Bills gained 481 yards – 481! – in total offense against the Patriots. They gained 35 first downs, a team record for Buffalo and the most the Patriots have ever given up in a game.
Buffalo receivers ran free in the secondary. The Patriots offense was again unable to come up with the clinching touchdown in the final minutes, settling for a 27-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski with 2:06 remaining to give them a tenuous six-point edge.
And yet, somehow, the Patriots won.
“I’ll take any win,” said Bill Belichick, when asked if he was concerned about the team’s inability to close out games.
That’s true. As McCourty said in his press conference, winning any game in the NFL is hard.
But coming off a bye week, even the Patriots expected better.
“We’re going to take the victory, we’re very thankful for the victory,” said wide receiver Deion Branch, who had four catches for 30 yards but dropped two passes. “This was one of the games we wanted to come out and display the type (of performance) we’re capable of having on the football field.
“This wasn’t our best. This wasn’t what we were expecting. We expected a lot more than what we showed out on the field today.”
Belichick, the hardest critic of all, said his players obviously weren’t sharp coming off the bye week.
“We had penalties, dropped balls, offsides, missed tackles,” he said. “Missed tackles and dropped balls, that’s pretty fundamental. We just didn’t do a good job on a number of areas. I don’t think it was any one thing.
“Overall we made some plays and we did some things well, but there were other things that weren’t as sharp as they need to be or what they should be.”
The Patriots won because the much-maligned defense made big plays at critical times. And McCourty, once again playing at safety with Patrick Chung still sidelined, was in the middle of it.
First, with just under 10 minutes remaining and the Patriots up 34-24, he forced a fumble at the New England 1 yard line that was recovered by teammate Kyle Arrington. On a first-down run from the 13, Buffalo’s Fred Jackson broke through to the 3, where he was hit by a couple of Patriots. As he fell forward, McCourty punched the ball out.
That allowed the Patriots to fend off one rally.
Then, with the Patriots clinging to their six-point edge in the final two minutes, McCourty came up with the game-saving interception in the end zone. On second-and-10 from the New England 15, Fitzpatrick took the shotgun snap and looked to his right, for T.J. Graham. His pass went directly to McCourty.
Now Graham said afterward that he ran his route too deep, and that it was his fault.
No one in the Patriots locker room cared.
“We know, no matter what happens in the game, there’s nothing bigger than turnovers,” McCourty said. “I think throughout any level of football, turnovers are always a big part. A lot of times, if you can just win that turnover ratio, you end up winning the game.”
The Patriots didn’t have any turnovers, Buffalo had four.
Still, Branch said, things have to get better.
“The guys know what they’re capable of doing and what kind of team we are,” he said. “We’ve just got to go out and display it and continue working.”
Then he added, “Our goal is come back and play a lot better against Indy than we did this week.”