In what might have been the most costly busted play of the season, quarterback Joe Ferguson was lost to the Buffalo Bills today with a sprained ankle in the first quarter, and maybe for Sunday's game in San Francisco.

A victory would have given the Bills the AFC title, but they collapsed after Ferguson left with 6:07 remaining in the period and the New England Patriots won, 24-2.

Ferguson was injured after he "audibilized," or checked off a play, Coach Chuck Knox explained. Running back Joe Cribbs didn't hear the audible, so he went one way and Ferguson went another. Linebacker Mike Hawkins sacked Ferguson and fell on Ferguson's twisted ankle.

Knox said X-rays showed no fracture and he hoped the quarterback would be ready to oppose the 49ers.

Patriot quarterback Matt Cavanaugh exploited several mistakes by the Bills and put a new face on his team's playoff chances, as New England (9-6) closed in on Buffalo (10-5).

The Patriots can win the division title by beating the Saints in New Orleans Sunday if the Bills lose in San Francisco.

This game ended in a driving snow shower and Ferguson, 30, hardly looked as though he would be ready to play in seven days as he limped up a sharp incline to the dressing room.

"Yes, it was a busted play," he said. "I had no one to hand off to."

Hawkins said, "I thought he was rolling out to pass when I blitzed. When I saw he had nobody to hand off to, he drew his arm to throw, but it was too late."

Ferguson was replaced by second-year quarterback Dan Manucci, who had handled the ball only once this season. The Patriots took advantage of his inexperience and sacked him five times for aggregate losses of 48 yards. Manucci was replaced in the third quarter by David Humm.

Cavanaugh threw only 19 passes, completing 12 for 136 yards and two touchdowns, while depending on the running of Vagas Ferguson and Don Calhoun, plus six timely scrambles by himself that gained 44 yards.

Ferguson ran 20 times for 81 yards against the top defense in the league.

Buffalo free safety Bill Simpson, who played in Los Angeles under Knox, said, "Cavanaugh hurt us with his scrambles almost as much as he did with his passes."

Conrad Dobler, the veteran guard who has been a leader for the Bills, said, "It's nothing against Manucci, but your timing is affected with a new quarterback. With Joe (Ferguson) we would have gotten the ball away quicker. We haven't scored a touchdown since we played Baltimore (two weeks ago), maybe we're saving them for San Francisco. We were down 21-0 before we could do anything today; then we made a lot of mistakes. When it rains it pours."

The Bills won the coin toss but that meant they were facing a wind chill factor of minus 10 (in 33 degree temperature).

The opening kickoff went over the head of Curtis Brown and he touched the ball at the Buffalo two-yard line, resulting in excellent field position for the Patriots, after a punt, at the Buffalo 41.

Cavanaugh passed 22 yards to wide receiver Don Westbrook and in three carries Vagas Ferguson ran 22 yards, the last nine for a touchdown.

After Joe Ferguson was hurt, the Patriots took command in the second quarter, going 80 yards to score after making good on a fourth-and-eighth gamble at the Buffalo 30 when Cavanaugh threw a 25-yard pass to tight end Russ Francis.Francis got the toughdown on a five-yard pass.

The Patriots just about put the game away in the third quarter with a 75-yard drive, highlighted by Cavanaugh's 17-yard scramble. He passed 13 yards to running back Andy Johnson for a touchdown and a 21-0 lead.

The Bills averted a shutout with help from the Patriots in the third quarter. Center Pete Brock snapped the ball over the head of punter Mike Hubach and into the end zone, where Hubach recovered and was tackled by Simpson for the safety.

Humm had a pass deflected, then intercepted by linebacker Rod Shoate at the New England 41 in the fourth quarter after John Smith's 27-yard field goal ended the scoring.

It was not a joyous New England dressing room, because the players were cool to the media after a week of acrimony in which one area writer termed them a "bunch of losers."

"We kept our playoff hopes alive," Coach Ron Erhardt said, "that's the important thing. Anything can happen now.

"I hope the victory reflects well, that we are not a bunch of losers."