FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots keep winning despite a defence that keeps struggling.
They're missing tackles, giving receivers plenty of space and allowing long gains. Coach Bill Belichick, admired for his defensive brilliance, hasn't figured out how to get his players to correct all that so they won't need to make game-saving plays late in the fourth quarter.
"There are a lot of things that we can do a lot better," linebacker Jerod Mayo said Monday, "just starting with the fundamentals. Tackling, going out there executing the plays that the coaches call and going out there and getting off of the field on third down are things that we have to improve on."
It took an interception in the end zone by Devin McCourty with 23 seconds left to secure a 37-31 win over the struggling Bills on Sunday. That was less of an outstanding play by McCourty, who caught a ball thrown right to him, than it was a poor one by Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and intended receiver T.J. Graham, who took the blame for it.
Just three week earlier, the Patriots got another turnover on their opponent's last offensive play and escaped with a 29-26 overtime win against the New York Jets. That time, Mark Sanchez fumbled when he was sacked and Rob Ninkovich recovered, ending the game.
But in the third game of the season, the defence couldn't stop the Baltimore Ravens when they got the ball at their 21-yard line with 1:55 left. They made it all the way to the Patriots 9 before Justin Tucker kicked a 27-yard field goal on the final play to give the Ravens a 31-30 win.
"We're lucky that (Sunday) we were not really at our best but still able to win and make enough plays to win. We've also been in a couple games kind of like that that we didn't win," Belichick said. "You hate to leave it to come down to one play like that, have a little more control of the game than that. That's the National Football League, too. There are an awful lot of games that come down to that one possession, one play."
The defence has been saved by its knack for forcing turnovers at critical times. It leads the AFC with 23 takeaways and is first in the NFL with 13 fumble recoveries. One of the Patriots' two recoveries against Buffalo came at their 1-yard line with the score 34-24 and 9:35 left in the game.
Still, they allowed one of the weakest teams in the NFL to run up big numbers.
The Bills set a club record with 35 first downs. They also gained a season-high 481 yards. Their previous best? Also against the Patriots, 438 yards in a 52-28 loss in the fourth game of the season.
The Patriots have allowed the eighth-most yards in the league, 382.1 per game. They may not think about that when they're just trying to make a play, but McCourty is concerned.
"We worry about that," he said.
Thanks largely to their prolific offence -- they lead the NFL with 430.3 yards and 33.2 points per game -- the Patriots are 6-3, the only winning record in the AFC East.
-- The Associated Press