By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) -- For a long stretch on Saturday evening, it appeared as though a rough season for Julian Edelman got quite a bit rougher.
The wide receiver -- who entered Saturday's game nursing knee and shoulder injuries after playing through a chest injury for most of the season -- absorbed a heavy hit from Jordan Poyer away from the ball in the third quarter. The two players collided, drawing an offensive pass interference flag on Edelman that negated a touchdown pass, but that was the least of the Patriots' concerns.
Edelman remained down on the turf for several moments, appearing to have suffered a concussion.
However, the concussion spotter must have believed Edelman was merely upset with the result of the play, because the receiver was allowed to continue playing for the remainder of the drive. After the drive -- which ended with a Patriots field goal to temporarily give New England a 13-10 lead -- Edelman was taken to the medical tent for evaluation. Shortly thereafter, Edelman was taken to the locker room, and the Patriots announced that the receiver was being evaluated for a head injury.
With Edelman gone, the Patriots' offense struggled, going three-and-out after falling behind 17-13. On their next possession, the Patriots managed to move the ball but stalled in the red zone, settling for a field goal from the 2-yard line to cut Buffalo's lead to one.
With Edelman still not on the sideline, it looked like the Patriots were going to have reach into their bag of tricks -- blocked punts, pick sixes, crafty forced fumbles -- to put the winning points on the board, because doing it offensively without Edelman against a top-five defense appeared to be an insurmountable hurdle.
Whether it would have been or not will remain unanswered, because Edelman trotted onto the field with a little over nine minutes left to play in the fourth quarter. He instantly changed the game -- and, realistically, the entire season.
Motioning right to left before lining up in the left slot, Edelman found plenty of space over the middle against a zone defense that either didn't know he had returned or didn't think he could make an impact. They surmised wrong.
Edelman not only caught Brady's pass but managed to land with both feet planted before cutting and spinning away from a would-be massive hit by Poyer, the same man who knocked him out of the game a quarter earlier. After dodging the contact, Edelman burst up the field for 16 extra yards, picking up 30 on the play and cutting the field in half for the offense.
From there, the Patriots relied on the ground game, with Rex Burkhead punching it in from the 1-yard line for the go-ahead score to give the Patriots a five-point lead.
That's where things got interesting. The Bills committed a personal foul after the touchdown, and the Patriots opted to apply the penalty yardage on the kickoff instead of the two-point conversion. That should have clued in the Bills that the Patriots would be passing, not running. And that should have keyed the Bills in on Edelman, who's far and away Brady's No. 1 option in any scenario, including a got-to-have-it conversion.
Even though the Bills surely knew this, Edelman got open, working through a blatant hold by Micah Hyde. Edelman shook off the contact. Brady hit him with a strike. Edelman came down with the successful conversion -- and the final points of the game -- in his hands.
Edelman reacted with a thunderous spike of the football, his presence -- and impact -- impossible to ignore in the biggest moment of the biggest game of the year.
"I think we'd all prefer to have him out there for 60 minutes," Brady said of Edelman, who caught five passes for 72 yards, plus the critical two-point conversion. "Unfortunate play [on the injury/OPI], but I'm glad he came back. Made a big play. Like he always does."
Tight end Matt LaCosse, who caught his first touchdown of the season in the first quarter, noted how different life is when No. 11 is on the field.
"Any time Julian's in the game, it's a different ballgame," LaCosse said. "Any time he's in the huddle or on the field, he's a dangerous guy, and we love having him out there."
Though head coach Bill Belichick is often hesitant to offer too much centralized praise to any one player after games, it might have been the unrelenting toughness from Edelman that led to the coach reflecting on what Edelman means to the team and has meant to the franchise for the past decade.
"Look, he's obviously one of our best players. He's one of our top competitors. He always has been," Belichick said while wearing a fresh AFC East champions hat. "He was a greaet competitor his rookie year, and it's transcended through his entire career. So whether it's been offense, defense ... at times we'd play him on defense, special teams, blocking. I thought he set the tone a little bit in the game early with a couple of big blocks in the running game. But yeah, that's Julian's playing style and that's what makes him a good player."
The praise from his teammates and coaches shouldn't be surprising, yet even the competition had plenty of plaudits for Edelman.
"Yeah, I mean, he's an All-Pro-caliber player," said veteran linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. "Obviously Tom trusts him probably more than anybody else on that field, and what he's done over the length of his career, he shows up, he makes plays, he's shifty, he's tough, and he does a lot of things for 'em. And so obviously when they had one of their best players come back into the game, that's another guy that you have to try to stop, and [Brady's] favorite guy that you have to try to stop. And it's hard, unless you get a pass rush, and it's hard to get one because he's getting rid of the ball out of his hands. And Edelman is so shifty, if it's any extended time as far as Tom being able to sit back there, he's going to get open."
Edelman upped his receiving totals to 97 receptions and 1,091 yards on the year. At 33 years old, despite a series of injuries and despite defenses honing most of their energy on stopping him, he's put together one of the very finest seasons of his career.
For Edelman, Saturday's individual game likely won't be remembered as one of his best. The victory won't go down as an all-time moment in Patriots franchise history. Years from now, it may well end up largely forgotten, swept up in decades' worth of Super Bowls, playoff games, blowout wins, painful losses, and everything else in between.
But when it comes time for Edelman to don his red jacket for his enshrinement into the Patriots Hall of Fame, it will be the qualities on display in this game that will certainly never be forgotten.
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