Like incense, the familiar, pleasing scents of success traced through the New England Patriots' locker room after Monday night's rousing 25-24 win over Buffalo. Yet the players did not want to bask too comfortably in the soothing aromas of their victory, lest they incur the wrath of their rightfully unsatisfied coach, Bill Belichick.
Instead, sensing they were approaching an invisible line, most of them quickly slipped into programmed self-deprecations. Yes, we probably should have lost but we didn't. We practice situational football every day, every week, so we were prepared when an opportunity arose.
"No," Patriots running back Kevin Faulk told me when I asked him whether the Bills had paid the heaviest price for leaving the windowsill a fraction of an inch open against such a dangerous opponent. "Winning tonight isn't the mark of a championship team. This is just the mark of a team trying to get better."
And so on.
On the outside, the legend of Tom Brady -- who threw two touchdowns in 1 minute, 6 seconds and completed 12 of 14 passes on a night when a sideline out he'd thrown a million times was an adventure -- spread broadly and widely, like eagle wings. He subsequently was named the AFC's player of the week.
But writhing in Monday night's shadow is Brady's vanquished foe, the Buffalo Bills. If Brady and the Patriots have crafted for themselves an aura of confidence, transforming gnawing, admirable persistence into a culture, the Bills have managed something quite the opposite: a suffocating pathology from an organization-wide dynamic of playing losing football by making losing decisions.
The details of the Bills' collapse are already yesterday's news outside Buffalo, rendered unimportant by the national afterglow of Brady and the Patriots and then by Tuesday's report that the home of kick returner Leodis McKelvin was vandalized after the game.
But Buffalo should not escape so easily. The Bills were not merely straw men Monday night, foils for the main event. They lost a game they should have won, and psychology was a big factor. The only thing missing was the next element of the discussion: why the Bills gave Monday night away.
But first, the how.
The Patriots trail 24-19 with 2:06 remaining. McKelvin takes the kickoff 3 or 4 yards deep into the end zone. He is indecisive. His first reaction is to down the ball for a touchback. Then he moves forward as if to run out of the end zone, but he hesitates slightly. Next, he barrels out into the scrum, gets hit twice and fumbles.
The Patriots recover.
The end comes three plays later, when Brady throws his second touchdown in a minute, both to Benjamin Watson, both on the same route.
"I'm very disappointed. Just turnovers. We don't need to have turnovers at the end of that game," McKelvin said. "So you know to cover up and don't make mistakes. Get the ball back to the offense, and everything would be good."
His coach, Dick Jauron, defended the entire sequence.
"I have no problem with Leodis coming out with that ball," Jauron said. "He's a dynamic runner. He was trying to win a football game or ice a football game, and we've seen him do it. He almost did it there. From the sideline, it looked like he was making an effort to cover the ball and have it covered with his hands, and somehow it came out of there. It's one of those things that happens, but I have no problem with Leodis. He plays the game hard, and he's a guy that can take it the distance."
On its face, Jauron seemed to be making sense. His team had just lost a wrenching football game. He has a full season of games ahead of him, and politically, it certainly was not in his best interest to criticize players who already felt terrible about the final sequences of the game. As the coach, he needed to project positivity, and the last thing he would want to do was curb the aggressiveness of players trying to win games.
But behind closed doors, Jauron has to be telling himself, his coaches and, at some point, his players that McKelvin made the grave mistake of taking an unnecessary chance. Determining what risks are acceptable is part of the essence of coaching, and if Jauron believes what he said after the game -- that he had "no problem" with the play -- he is directly contributing to the culture that is currently claiming his football team.
That gets to the heart of why the Bills didn't win.
Strategically, a number of considerations were at work. With 2:06 on the clock, McKelvin's downing the football would have given the Patriots, who had their full complement of three timeouts, an extra clock stoppage for the two-minute warning. Jauron, some Patriots players told me, probably thought about not wanting to give New England any more opportunities.
And as Jauron said, McKelvin could have made a dynamic play and broken the Patriots' will.
Both of these suggestions, however, are unacceptable and undermine the true nature of the game as it unfolded Monday night. When the Patriots cut Buffalo's lead to 17-13 with 11:43 left in the game, the Bills responded with what should have been a winning, confidence-soaring drive: 14 plays, 62 yards and a touchdown that pushed the lead to what should have been an insurmountable 24-13 advantage with 5:32 remaining. The Patriots had no answer for Buffalo's offense, which went no-huddle three times on that drive. And even though, statistically, the Patriots dominated the time of possession, the numbers were deceiving because Buffalo, until it unraveled, had won the fourth quarter.
Had the Bills relaxed and understood the psychology of winning football, they would have realized the superiority of their position and been coached accordingly:
Down the ball in the end zone.
Approach the game with the same confidence you've shown in the previous 58 minutes and believe -- based on the proof of their last touchdown drive -- that the offensive will kill the clock.
Make the Patriots respond to you.
Instead, Buffalo panicked. Indeed, the Bills played two games Monday: one well-run, conservative game plan for 58 minutes -- when they had it won even without using their biggest, best player, Terrell Owens -- and another unsure and jittery one for the final two. And so they added another chapter to the Patriots' legend, and to their own misery.
Jauron should have ordered his returners to down the ball in the end zone. Or, in the event that Stephen Gostkowski's kickoff fell short of the goal line, to get past the 20-yard line and fall to the ground.
What appeared to happen is that at the biggest moment of the night, neither the coaching staff nor McKelvin had thought through a key decision. If they thought like winners, they did not execute like them. The Bills were trying to win the game before it was over but didn't have the confidence to take the game.
And therein lies the critical difference between New England and Buffalo. Good teams believe they are good, and thus positive things result. Bad teams expect the worst and usually end up getting it.
Monday night was a double-edged, real-life example of the power of mystique. The Bills were so concerned about the Patriots' ability to win that they wound up devaluing their own.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42.