Momentum in a football game often shifts for reasons that aren't entirely clear.
For instance, it appeared that Sunday's game between the Patriots and the Buffalo Bills was on the verge of taking a quantum leap in the Bills' favor when Ryan Fitzpatrick threw to wide receiver Donald Jones over the middle early in the third quarter, and the third-year veteran completed a 68-yard play to give Buffalo a 21-7 lead on its home field.
Usually, the conventional wisdom would say that it was time for the Patriots to abandon their ground game and start throwing the ball almost exclusively, looking for the quick strike that could derail the Bills' momentum.
Instead, they were patient. They were precise. And they ran the ball.
And ran, and ran, and ran some more until the lead was again theirs, and they could both run and throw with impunity at a Buffalo defense that didn't know from where the next strike was coming.
"They were really challenging us to run the ball," Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady said after his team's 52-28 victory to even its record at 2-2. "They had some little guys on the field with our big personnel grouping, and at that point, you had to try to take advantage of it. You can't just keep throwing into a heavy pass defense."
It took a rookie from Mississippi, a kid that no one thought would make the roster until maybe the last week of the preseason, to light a fire under the Patriots' offense. Brandon Bolden caught an 11-yard pass to start their next drive after the Jones touchdown, then galloped for 27 yards on the next play, and 13 on the next, and suddenly the Patriots were back in business.
Stevan Ridley gained 12 more yards on three carries before Brady, scrambling out of trouble, flipped the ball to Danny Woodhead for a 17-yard touchdown catch that brought the Patriots back into contention.
Bolden added a 20-yard run to set up a 4-yard TD scamper by the newly fleet-footed Brady with 3:53 left in the third quarter, tying the score at 21-21. And the runs kept on coming as the Patriots threw three more touchdowns on the scoreboard before the Bills were able to answer them.
By the time the rubber pellets from the scorched artificial surface stopped smoldering, the Patriots had two runners over 100 yards - the first time that has happened for them since 1980 - and they also had two receivers with more than 100 yards to their credit. That combination has been struck only once before in the NFL, in 2008 by the Green Bay Packers.
And it all came at exactly the right time. It's not overstating things to suggest that a season rested in the balance as the Patriots began their version of Sherman's March to the Sea (or in this case, Lake Erie) - for if they had not been able to erase a 21-7 deficit and had fallen to 1-3 on the season, there's no telling what might have happened in upcoming games at home to Denver (and Peyton Manning) and at Seattle.
"We felt like we missed a lot of good opportunities in the first half," Patriots' coach Bill Belichick said. "We had the ball down there and didn't take advantage of it, and we got some turnovers and weren't able to put points on the board. Fortunately, in the second half we were able to capitalize on it. I think we just played and executed a little better."
It was almost a mirror image of last year's game at the Ralph, when the Patriots blew a 21-0 lead and lost in overtime. This time, they weren't about to let the Bills hang around once the score was again close.
"To be honest with you, they whipped us," Buffalo coach Chan Gailey said. "Bottom line, they whipped us. They blocked us, we did not get off our blocks and they were making our corners make a bunch of tackles."
The Patriots also accomplished this without one of their best offensive linemen and run-blockers, guard Logan Mankins, home in New England with a hip injury.
"We were a little disappointed in our running production the last couple games, and we really made it a big emphasis this game," Belichick said. "We worked hard on it in practice and we were able to have some good results today.
"You can't say enough about the offensive line, though," he added. "Those guys have a good front and we were able to block them."
The Patriots may have also blocked a potential disaster in the process.