Top 20 Games of 2011

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Game 7: Patriots at Bills Week 3

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All good things come to an end. Do all bad things come to an end, too?

If you’re a Buffalo Bills fan -- or root against what some folks consider the NFL’s “Evil Empire” -- then yes, bad things do indeed come to an end.

Buffalo snapped a 15-game losing streak to the New England Patriots at Ralph Wilson Stadium in our No. 7 game of 2011.

As the red-headed stepchild of the AFC East, the Bills hadn’t beaten the Patriots since the 2003 opener, when they caught a flat New England club dealing with the recent release of team leader Lawyer Milloy. Since that game, the Bills had fallen time and again, home and away. Bad. Real bad. During the 15-game skid, the Bills were outscored 435-163. That’s an average score of 29 to 11. The Bills weren’t just losing, they were getting hammered.

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Meanwhile, entering this contest in Buffalo, Tom Brady had declared jihad against every NFL team not named “Patriots” over his last 18 games. Here’s a rundown:

W-L: 16-2
Completion pct.: 66.7
TD: 43
INT: 6
Passer rating: 113.6

This just in: Those are pretty good numbers.

Nevertheless, Brady didn’t have his best day in Week 3. His turnover-happy performance dovetailed with a clutch second half from Ryan Fitzpatrick and the oft-abused Bills. A thrilling day if you watched this game at a Buffalo-area Applebee’s and have a Joe Ferguson poster in your room. But those weren’t the only folks who enjoyed this contest. The Bills’ 34-31 upset of the AFC’s best team was memorable for all football fans -- a back-and-forth game filled with big plays, a 21-point comeback and a Bills secondary that made the league’s best quarterback this side of Aaron Rodgers look painfully ordinary.

Of course, Brady didn’t look so ordinary early. The Patriots marched 80 yards for a touchdown on the opening drive of the game, with Brady going 5-for-5 along the way. Then the 2010 NFL MVP led the offense 65 yards to another score on New England’s second possession. Just like the first drive, the second ended on a Brady touchdown pass. As if that weren’t enough, Brady logged another scoring strike on a sweet throw down the seam to tight end Rob Gronkowski. Just like that, it was 21-0 Patriots. Here we go again, thought the good folks in Buffalo.

Ah, but this is when pro football is at its very best. When you expect an outcome to be certain before a game is played and that expectation begins to materialize … but then the underdog bites back with force. The NFL’s M.O. has always been “On any given Sunday…” This game served as a poster child for that philosophy.

Buffalo fueled its comeback the old-fashioned way: with pass defense. Old-fashioned because in today’s NFL, where seemingly every rule favors a passing offense, Buffalo stormed back behind a rabid secondary. The competition committee couldn’t stop Bryan Scott, Leodis McKelvin, George Wilson and Drayton Florence from intercepting the football.

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How’s this for impact? Those four interceptions led to 24 points. Scott’s second-quarter INT got things started, resulting in a Rian Lindell field goal to make the score 21-10. And then McKelvin’s, Wilson’s and Florence’s picks all resulted in touchdowns. In fact, Florence took his interception to the house just 14 seconds after a Fred Jackson touchdown. All of the sudden, the Bills led 31-24, putting the onus on Brady to close the gap.

Per usual, he did just that. A touchdown pass to Wes Welker capped off a long Pats drive and tied the game at 31 apiece.

For once, though, the celebrity quarterback didn’t have the last laugh. No, Fitzpatrick -- whose two early interceptions got the Bills off to an ominous start -- continued his hot second-half play, hitting Jackson on a slant that went for 38 yards, setting up a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line with just 1:43 to play. The Bills burned clock before sending out Lindell for a chip-shot field goal.

Game over. Streak over.

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Head scratcher: How does a guy who went 335 straight passes without throwing an interception in 2010 throw not one, but four balls to the other team in a single game? The Patriots quarterback threw three of his picks in the second half, the first of which was intercepted by McKelvin -- a former goat in the Pats-Bills rivalry. McKelvin’s tight coverage and subsequent interception led to a Buffalo touchdown, getting the Bills within four at 21-17.

Can’t-miss play 1: After Brady’s third interception of the day, Fitzpatrick got it going for the Bills’ offense with a beautiful deep ball to Donald Jones. The Bills went four wide out of the ‘gun, with Jones at the top of the formation. Jones executed a brilliant stop-and-go move on the corner and Fitzpatrick delivered a perfect ball to hit him in stride 40 yards downfield. That led to Jackson’s game-tying touchdown.

Boneheaded play of the game: Down 31-24 late in the fourth quarter, the Patriots had a third-and-4 from the Buffalo 41. Chad Ochocinco ran a deep corner route and Brady put the ball right in his hands at the 5. Make that right through his hands.

The Patriots eventually scored on the drive, but it took them 11 more plays to travel those 41 yards. That left just over three minutes on the clock, which the Bills ate up en route to their game-winning field goal. If Ochocinco catches that ball, who knows what happens.

Can’t-miss play 2: Coming out of the two-minute warning, Buffalo spread it out, going five wide on first-and-10 from the Patriots’ 40. Interestingly enough, tailback Fred Jackson was split wide right. Jackson caught a quick slant and exploded down the field before being brought down at the 1-yard line. It was a brilliant play call on first down vs. the blitz, and won the game for the Bills.

Best player on the field: Welker. You can’t blame the guy for wanting a decent contract. He was a huge part of this game, catching a franchise record 16 passes for 217 yards and two touchdowns.

Why this game is No. 7: Patriots-Bills is easy to forget because a) it was so early in the season, and b) it involved the Buffalo Bills. Such is the state of matters when a franchise is in the throes of a 12-year playoff drought. Looking back on the season, though, there was no getting past this game. Buffalo ended its 15-game losing skid to the bully in its division by overcoming a 21-point deficit and continually picking off one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.

Watching Patriots-Bills on Stage 1 with a lot of our NFL Network analysts made the experience pretty cool, too. Everyone in the room -- Deion Sanders, Michael Irvin, Steve Mariucci, our producers and crew -- was absolutely stunned when Brady’s pass bounced off Marcell Dareus’ head and perfectly fluttered into the arms of Florence. We had this game on the jumbo screen with all the other afternoon games barely receiving a glance (at least not in the fourth quarter). What a ballgame.

Why not higher?: Well, No. 7 is pretty darn high, considering how many great matchups there were to choose from in 2011. Unfortunately, Buffalo’s win still didn’t translate to overall success, as the Bills missed the playoffs for the 12th consecutive season. It sure would have been nice if this huge upset propelled the club to something other than a 6-10 season.

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