It may have seemed more appropriate for Halloween, but last Sunday two unlikely urchins, the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills, dressed up as co-leaders and played a game for first place in the AFC East, once thought to be solely the province of the Miami Dolphins. Buffalo was a shade more convincing in the role, 29 to 28 to be numerical about it.
In the long run the Patriots were undone by the type of daring that has carried them so far this season. They forced three Buffalo turnovers in the second quarter and threatened to turn the game into a rout, since the third one came with the Patriots leading 21-12. Linebacker Sam Hunt had intercepted a Joe Ferguson pass and returned it 27 yards to the Buffalo 15. A field goal would have sent the Pats into the dressing room with an imposing 12-point lead, but Patriot Quarterback Jim Plunkett pressed for a touchdown and went to the air. On third and 10 his pass over the middle was intercepted by Linebacker Merv Krakau, who ran it out to the Bills' 42.
Now it was Buffalo's turn to be daring. There was still l: 10 remaining in the half. Ferguson's previous two passes had been intercepted, but Coach Lou Saban called for another one. Ferguson hit Ahmad Rashad on the right sideline for 20, again on the left sideline for 10, then threw down the middle to J. D. Hill for 27 more to the Patriots' one-yard line. From there, with 42 seconds left, O. J. Simpson carried for the touchdown to cut New England's lead to 21-19 at the half. It was a different ball game after that.
It would be unfair to say that New England never had another chance, but Buffalo did seem to be the master after the intermission. The Bills moved quickly to a 26-21 lead when New England, continuing to gamble, passed on fourth and three at the Buffalo 33. Linebacker Dave Washington intercepted Plunkett's short toss over the middle, outran the Patriots to the sideline and turned the corner to go 72 yards for the touchdown.
The Patriots scrambled back into the lead on their next possession but needed considerable help from the Bills, getting two first downs and an extra play inside the Buffalo five on Buffalo penalties. Then Mack Herron, who had scored twice in the first half on long pass plays, finally swept in from the two on a fourth-down play.
Buffalo's winning points came on a 47-yard field goal by John Leypoldt on the first play of the fourth quarter. After that, New England had one late chance when Linebacker George Webster pulled the ball loose from O. J. Simpson to end a time-consuming drive that had taken the Bills to the Patriot 19-yard line. Safety Jack Mildren recovered and New—England moved downfield, ultimately to a fourth and two at the Buffalo 29, with 56 seconds remaining.
There the Patriots stopped gambling and called on John Smith, a left-footed placekicking import from England. A high snap allowed Buffalo's Jeff Yeates just enough time to get his hand up and deflect the ball, and the Bills were all alone in first place.
It was a well-earned victory. Buffalo had to throw much more than it had intended to. In the Bills' earlier win over the Pats by the similar score of 30-28—the two defeats, by a total of three points, are the Patriots' only losses this season—Buffalo gained 180 yards on the ground against New England's much talked-about 3-4 defense. This time Patriot Coach Chuck Fairbanks jammed the line of scrimmage with his linebackers, two of whom were seemingly assigned to shadow Buffalo's running backs. But this tactic meant that New England could not double-team Buffalo's exceptional wide receivers, Hill and Rashad, as they had previously, so Saban ordered a lot of play-action passes, with fakes into the line to freeze the linebackers before throwing.
Despite his shaky second quarter, Ferguson's overall performance was superior. He took particular advantage of Rashad, who caught seven passes for 110 yards and a touchdown in the first half. The Bills acquired Rashad, who pronounces his first name Ah-mod, in an offseason trade with St. Louis for Quarterback Dennis Shaw. While he was with the Cardinals, Rashad not only dropped his former name, Bobby Moore, but also many of the passes thrown his way. Bad eyesight was the excuse. He tried glasses, but in cold weather they fogged up or became icy. He would cup them in his hands in the huddle to melt the ice. He tried hard contact lenses. He tried soft contact lenses. Then, in Buffalo, he found what seems to be the ultimate solution. "Now I just squint a lot," he says. "It helps my concentration. In night games I see rings around the ball, but in daylight I can see it pretty clear. Once I tune into it, I got it."' Rashad still has to wear glasses to drive himself home after a game.
New England, of course, was not supposed to be playing for first place in any league at this stage of the season. Its astonishing success and the showdown with Buffalo produced a weeklong madness in Boston, which empathizes with its professional teams as no other city does. The Patriots perennially have been poor cousins to the Bruins, the Celtics and the Red Sox. This year they are overshadowing those teams and just about every other cynosure in town. For the first time in their history the Patriots are producing a land-office business for that not so proper Bostonian, the scalper. Politicians, always adept at jumping on bandwagons, arranged to have hundreds of loyal party workers lined up last Sunday on the roads leading to Schaefer Stadium with VOTE FOR signs. Inevitably, Governor Francis Sargent of Massachusetts wagered two pots of beans and a cod against New York Governor Malcolm Wilson's four bushels of apples.
Yet the Patriots' 6-2 record was not so surprising to those who set store by the lessons of history—history as written by the Buffalo Bills. Not too many years ago both teams hit bottom. Buffalo had the worst record in football in 1968, won the right to choose O. J. Simpson in the draft and in time began to revive. New England was the worst team in 1970, and chose Jim Plunkett.
It also takes good coaching to turn a disastrous situation around. Buffalo rehired Saban two years ago, and New England followed last year with Fairbanks. When Saban arrived in Buffalo, Simpson had had three so-so years that yielded little more than a steamship ticket to Africa, courtesy of a dissatisfied fan. But the new coach built his offense around the star running back and O. J. responded by leading the league in rushing. The year before Fairbanks took over in New England, Plunkett was the lowest-rated quarterback in pro football and had to undergo surgery on his left knee. Last year he led the AFC in passing yardage.
Saban won four games and tied one his first year. Fairbanks won five in his first. Buffalo made great advances in Sa-ban's second season. The Patriots are doing the same this year. The 1973 Bills had a huge turnover in personnel and ended up with seven new starters on defense. The team's average age was only 24.3. This season the Patriots took a look at 147 football players. Fairbanks has eight new starters on defense, and the average age of his team is 24.9. Eleven of the current Bills preceded Sa-ban. Only 11 of Fairbanks' players were with the team when he arrived. It may not be carrying the analogy too far to suggest that while the Bills are true playoff contenders, the Patriots are one year away.
Saban's success stems in large part from perceptive handling of his personnel, a perfect example being the job he has done with Ferguson. Ferguson was a likely Heisman Trophy candidate after his junior year at Arkansas in 1971, but a new backfield coach there and a new system in his final season took care of that. "I wasn't sure then that I wanted to play football again," he says. But when the Bills drafted him in the third round he decided to "find out if I could play."
Saban immediately handed him the starting job but kept a tight rein on him in 1973 by calling all the plays. "Coach Saban really got it into me that I could play," Ferguson says now, "and having O. J. helped, too. If he hadn't been here last year, it might have been a whole different story. He took a lot of pressure off me and gave me time to gain confidence."
Ferguson threw the ball only 164 times last season and, along with Norm Snead, was the lowest-ranked quarterback in football. This year Saban is still calling the plays but he has shown confidence in the young quarterback by letting him throw more, and Ferguson is second in the league in passing. On Sunday, Saban never lost that faith, even in the almost ruinous second quarter, and it paid off. For the day Ferguson completed 15 of 23 passes for 242 yards and a touchdown.
"We have to take some of the pressure off O. J. now," says Ferguson, happy to repay the debt. "Wherever he goes the linebackers go. If he ran 10 yards out of bounds without the football, they'd go with him."
Simpson, who gained 74 yards in 19 carries against the Patriots, does not mind the attention. Like all the Bills, he can taste the playoffs. "I've had all the individual things," he said recently. "I've gained 2,000 yards, I've been Player of the Year, I've made the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro team. But I haven't won. That is, I haven't won enough to get into the playoffs and the Super Bowl. That's what I want now. One of those rings with all the diamonds."