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By beating Buffalo last Sunday at the Bills' own game—defense—the amazing Boston Patriots have taken the lead in the American Football League's Eastern Division. To keep the lead, the Pats must defeat the Oilers in Houston this week and the Jets in New York on the final weekend of the regular season. That seems to be a formidable job even for the Patriots, who do their best when the pressure is toughest. But the very fact that Boston is up there at all is cause for astonishment. It should be enough to make Mike Holovak the AFL's Coach of the Year and Fullback Jim Nance—who got the Patriots moving on offense with a brilliant, battering 65-yard touchdown run (see cover)—the league's most valuable player. It ought to win a year's supply of cigars for Quarterback Babe Parilli.
Although Buffalo's Joel Collier, the youngest head coach in professional football, said early in the season that he expected the East to come down to a fight between his team and Boston in the fading weeks, few considered that idea seriously—especially after Buffalo Quarterback Jack Kemp got his sore elbow cured and took the Bills on a streak, losing only one of 10 games. But Boston, all but unnoticed, was losing only one game of eight. The loss was a freakish thing played against Denver in a cold rainstorm, and it knocked the Pats out of an earlier, temporary lead.
Boston rebounded from the Denver loss to tie Kansas City, the Western Division champions, 27-27, and then beat Miami to set up last week's showdown with Buffalo. Suddenly the Pats became candidates for reappraisal.
There are at least three reasons for Boston's surprising success: the consistent play of Nance, the uncanny coaching of Holovak and a defense that has been exceptionally reluctant to give up yardage on the ground, thus cutting off ball control by opponents. "We figure if you take away the rushing," says Boston Defensive Tackle Houston Antwine, "the other side can't keep the ball for very long at a time."
Middle Linebacker Nick Buoniconti is a vital part of such strategy. At 5 feet 11 and 220 pounds, Buoniconti, who made his reputation as a fierce blitzer, is so quick that he looks like a big safety man playing a few yards across from the opposing quarterback. Buoniconti has an instinct for being where the action is, and he reads offenses as if he had been in the other huddle.
Buoniconti and the Pats used to put on a blitz that resembled a stampede. ''They hit you with so many guys," Kemp once said, "that you'd swear half a dozen of them came out of the stands." Such full-out blitzing is usually a gamble to disguise a weakness, which in Boston's case was—and still is—the defensive backs' lack of speed. But the Patriots worked the blitz so well that it came to be regarded as a standard defense—and helped them win the Eastern Championship in 1963.
"We blitzed a lot because we were getting away with it," says Holovak, a tall, quiet man who was an outstanding fullback on Frank Leahy's Boston College teams of 1940, 1941 and 1942 and who later played fullback for the Rams and the Bears. "We don't blitz a tenth as much as we did three years ago. If we blitz less, it is more effective."
After PT-boat duty in World War II, Holovak served as head coach at Boston College for nine seasons. BC teams at that time were so meager in talent that Holovak had to move players around from week to week into positions they had never played before. That experience served him well when he joined the Pats in 1959 as director of player personnel. He was pressed into labor as offensive backfield coach under Lou Saban and became head coach when Saban was fired after the fifth game of the 1961 season. Under Holovak, the Patriots have never finished worse than second except in 1965, when a flood of injuries dropped them to third.
Boston was not expected to rise much above that mediocre level this year. Quarterback Parilli is 36 years old. Most of the Patriots' receivers are small and slow, although one of them, Gino Cappelletti, the field-goal kicker, has led the AFL in scoring four times. Their main strengths were their defensive line and linebackers. But without a runner to ease the obligations of Larry Garron, the defense seemed in for a long year. And the Pats started off gloomily enough, losing two of their first three games before Holovak rallied them.
"Mike gets more out of his material than any other coach I've ever seen," says one of his AFL rivals. "His secret is that he sticks to the things his team does best. Mike doesn't allow any prima donnas. His players are tough guys who like to play and they play for Mike, who is a gentleman."