Patriots 21, Bills 16
Tedy Bruschi raised his arms early in the game and the fans cheered. Then another returning star won it for the Patriots with two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
Corey Dillon, who struggled most of the season before missing his previous game with an ankle injury, scored on a pair of one-yard runs as New England rallied for a 21-16 win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday night.
Despite Bruschi's return 81/2 months after having a mild stroke, the Patriots' defense struggled for much of the game. The inside linebacker and emotional leader made several good plays early and finished with two tackles and five assists.
"I'm back to doing what I love," Bruschi said. "Sometimes, you've just got to pick yourself off the ground and get back to living your life. That's all I was trying to do."
The Patriots (4-3) avoided matching their loss total of the last two seasons combined, when they went 34-4 with two Super Bowl championships.
Trailing 16-14, New England got the ball at the 23-yard line of Buffalo (3-5) when Rosevelt Colvin stripped it from quarterback Kelly Holcomb and recovered with 6 minutes 14 seconds left. Tom Brady hit Deion Branch for a 22-yard gain and Dillon, who has rushed for more than 100 yards just once this season, scored his second touchdown of the game.
Dillon, who entered the game when Patrick Pass hurt his leg early in the second quarter, had been questionable on the injury report. But he scored on a one-yard run with 7:06 left, cutting the lead to 16-14. He finished with 77 yards on 18 carries.
Buffalo's last hope ended on a fourth and seven at the Patriots 40 when Holcomb completed a pass to Eric Moulds, who was stopped for no gain by Hank Poteat.
Bruschi played inside linebacker most of the game 11 days after returning to practice. He was involved in a tackle on Buffalo's second play from scrimmage, then slowed down Roscoe Parrish on a reverse that resulted in a six-yard loss.
Bruschi had been the sparkplug and on-field strategist in the Patriots' three titles over the last four seasons, but had a stroke 11 days after the latest championship. He had surgery to fix a hole in his heart in March and had been working out and attending meetings regularly since training camp began in July.
"I'm thrilled, I'm excited and I'm terrified all at the same time," said Cathy Libin, a fan wearing a Bruschi jersey.
But if the fans were holding their breath, you wouldn't know it from the full-throated cheers they gave at each mention of Bruschi's name over the public address system.
A deafening cheer greeted his pregame introduction -- which was last, for dramatic effect.