At the same time, Buffalo was offering little resistance on defense. The awesome, tireless end Bruce Smith made some big plays early, but he got little help, and as the game progressed, he began to stick out like Demi Moore in a crowd of nuns. Each time the Bills put pressure on Bledsoe, he would calmly deliver. He was neither sacked nor intercepted, and his poise was uncanny.
By game's end Bledsoe was within two pass attempts of Warren Moon's single-season NFL record (655, set in 1991). The first of Bledsoe's three touchdown passes, a four-yarder with 9:07 left in the first half, went to his primary target, All-Species tight end Ben Coates, who leads the AFC with 93 receptions. Dismayed reporters have found that Coates treats interviews the way Dennis Rodman treats practices. They will never call him Ben Quotes, but his well-rounded skills speak with eloquence and volume.
Shortly before halftime, Bledsoe and wideout Vincent Brisby connected for the first of two scores, and the teams left the field tied at 17. Parcells didn't say much in the locker room, which was fine with his players. His stirring halftime chat in the Minnesota game has been credited with turning the season around for New England, but Pat linebacker Vincent Brown believes the coach's most effective strategy is silence. "Actually, it was what he didn't say that made more of an impact," Brown says of the Viking speech. "He said, 'How long? How long are you going to take this? How long till you fight back?' He wasn't pissed. He was more disappointed. It's like you're a kid, and you know your mother is mad at you, but she doesn't say anything. She just gives you that look."
Parcells was wearing a more forgiving look by the fourth quarter on Sunday, after Bledsoe had given him the traditional Gatorade bath. By then the crowd of 56,784 had thinned considerably. The fans were driven away by the combination of snow turned to freezing rain and a Buffalo collapse that rivaled its infamous Super Bowl XXVII stinker against the Dallas Cowboys. Buffalo's first four possessions of the second half on Sunday ended in turnovers, leading to 24 Patriot points and settling matters early in the fourth quarter.
The Bills' time expired after Reed fumbled away receptions on two consecutive series. Both balls ended up in cornerback Reynolds's hands and, eventually, the Buffalo end zone. In the end, after the midweek phone calls and the spirited comeback, the Pats' overthrow of the Bills was more disquieting than uplifting.
As Levy sat in his office after the game, reviewing the wreckage with Buffalo general manager John Butler, there was much to ponder. Already reeling from the loss of several key veterans to free agency over the past two off-seasons, the Bills this winter find themselves with little room to maneuver under the salary cap and several standout veterans among their 16 free agents. The future would seem to be gloomy, but Levy expressed optimism that the Bills could be saved by a San Francisco 49er-style infusion of fresh, free-agent talent.
A day earlier, in the same dank office, Levy had quarreled with a visitor about the Bills' loser tag, noting the three-foot-high stack of supportive mail from across the country that he has received this season. "Human nature is such that people tend to wilt from disappointment and defeat, and it takes unique qualities to overcome that tendency," he said. "Many possess those qualities, but a lot of people subjugate them. One of the easiest things is to knock someone else's failure, because it deflects your own shortcomings."
On Sunday the knock against the Bills was unavoidable. They were simply unable to stand up to a team that is sprouting like a cornstalk.