Callahan: Patriots scored a throwback win in home upset of Bills

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FOXBORO — Moments after his induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame, Mike Vrabel preached to a choir of a few hundred.

The indoor ceremony was joyous and populated by ex-teammates, coaches and fans all happy to see him and ride shotgun on a two-hour drive down memory lane.

Piece of cake.

But during his halftime speech Sunday, standing atop a makeshift stage over the Gillette Stadium field, Vrabel addressed an unsettled crowd of thousands; a mix of fans disappointed and displeased at the Patriots’ 1-5 start after decades of dominance.

So during his two minutes at the mic, Vrabel did not bask in past glory. He recognized the moment, and his audience for what they were and decided to stump for his old team.

“I want to thank the fans that made playing in this stadium unbelievably special. … I also don’t want you to take this organization for granted,” Vrabel said. “Enjoy it. It’s not like this everywhere.”

Essentially, Vrabel called on fans to believe as they did during the early dynasty years; a magical time when their faith was rewarded seemingly every Sunday through hard-nosed defense, clutch offense and an uncanny ability to win on the margins, be it field position or a fine detail they had unearthed from film study. It was a hard ask.

To that point, the Pats hadn’t completed a fourth-quarter comeback in years. Bill Belichick’s defense made a habit of getting pushed around to start most every game. The Patriots operated like one of the worst-coached teams in the league, careless at times and clueless in others.

But all of that — even if just for an afternoon — ended Sunday.

Patriots solve years-long problem in upset of Bills

Mac Jones’ game-winning touchdown pass to Mike Gesicki with 12 seconds left punctuated a throwback 29-25 win and a fitting tribute to Vrabel’s glory days. Film study allowed Belichick’s defense to jump Josh Allen for an interception on the Bills’ first play from scrimmage. Later, Jones directed a 2-minute drill and secured the second fourth-quarter comeback of his career.

“It was just old-school Patriots football,” said Pats safety Jabrill Peppers. “You know if Tom (Brady) got the ball late in the game, we’re gonna win the game.And Mac did a great job.”

Only eight players on the Patriots’ active roster experienced the tail end of the dynasty and can speak to the magic of those days. One of them is cornerback Jonathan Jones, now the elder statesman of Belichick’s secondary who originally made the team as an undrafted rookie in 2016.

Sunday’s finish, he admitted, felt familiar.

“It was like old times,” Jones said in the locker room, flashing a smile. “I think it started from the beginning just how the game went. Offense gets the ball, comes out and drives the field, special teams backed ’em up, defense gets a turnover. It felt like how we play football, and it feels good to get back to that.”

That beginning included a 3-0 lead after Jones orchestrated a 63-yard opening drive that resulted in a field goal. Then Josh Allen took the field, and stepped into a trap Peppers sprung with his first interception of the season.

Peppers shared post-game he recognized two tells that Buffalo would open with a play-action pass. Both tells pertained to Bills wide receiver Gabriel Davis, who motioned closer to the formation before the snap.

Typically, that motion indicates an incoming run-block but, Peppers explained, Davis stopped short of his usual run-blocking landmark. Davis’ body language also betrayed his true intentions, as he moved too casually for a player who’s job was supposedly to crack a defensive end.

What changed for Mac Jones in Patriots’ first game-winning drive in over two years

“(Davis) is a point-of-attack blocker, but he doesn’t block from that alignment. So (the Bills) wanted me to think that Davis was going to (block), so they can hit the (route) behind him,” Peppers explained. “So I kind of played into that, then took away the first read. … Once (Allen) saw me take away the flat, I waited for him to look off left. And when once I see that shoulder go (up), I opened up and he threw it right to me.”

After Peppers’ pick, Jones spearheaded a touchdown drive. The Patriots led 10-0.

“I think that kind of shocked them,” Jones said, “and that set the tempo for the team.”

Meanwhile, Belichick’s beloved special teams — ranked 32nd by DVOA entering kickoff — delivered on every front.

The Patriots enjoyed a seven-yard advantage in average starting field position. Rookie kicker Chad Ryland went 3-for-3 on field goal attempts, including a 49-yarder in the second half. Bryce Baringer dropped both his punts inside Buffalo’s 20. Another rookie, Demario Douglas, zipped one punt back 25 yards to set up a scoring drive.

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Of course Buffalo, which had beaten the Patriots in six of their last seven meetings, did not relent. Allen cruised to back-to-back touchdowns in the fourth quarter that dropped Jones in a 3-point deficit with less than two minutes left. No one, not even the wise-cracking Vrabel, could cut through the tension that stretched across Gillette Stadium in those moments.

Only victory could do that. And thanks to Jones’ steady hand and sound play-calls that exploited Buffalo’s poor tackling, it did.

“I’m proud of the way we competed today, the way we overcame adversity,” Pats captain and center David Andrews said. “For me, that’s kind of the biggest thing.”

At the end of a weekend spent celebrating the franchise’s past and briefly reliving it, players and coaches spilled onto the field in celebration. The crowd relished a rekindled joy it hadn’t known in years. All the while, a Bruce Springsteen classic rang out over the stadium speakers:

“And I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it

But I probably will

Yeah, just sitting back, trying to recapture

A little of the glory, yeah

Well time slips away and leaves you with nothing, mister

But boring stories of …

Glory Days”

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