ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Matthew Slater was convinced this day would never come.
Over 11-plus seasons for the New England Patriots, Slater had won three Super Bowl titles, made seven Pro Bowls and developed a well-earned reputation as one of the best special teams players in league history. But he’d never experienced the thrill of scoring a touchdown in an NFL stadium.
One hundred eighty-three games, zero scores.
In the first quarter of Game No. 184 on Sunday, the Patriots called for an all-out punt block, with cornerback J.C. Jackson abandoning his gunner and shooting in off the right edge.
This tactic caught the Buffalo Bills flat-footed. They left Jackson unaccounted for, giving him a clear line to punter Corey Bojorquez and allowing him to block the punt with relative ease. The ball caromed high in the air, bounced once and landed squarely in the arms of Slater, who sprinted 11 yards into the end zone for the first touchdown of his Hall of Fame-worthy NFL career.
The Patriots went on to defeat the Bills 16-10 at New Era Field, with Slater’s long-awaited six-pointer proving to be the game-winner.
“I think I stopped thinking about getting one a while ago,” Slater said after the game. “Man, I’m just real thankful for that. I thank God for putting me in the position. I guess if you play long enough, you get a bone eventually. Pretty cool.”
He added: “You dream of, as a kid, being able to score. And even being 34 years old, I’m still a kid, so I can dream. Man, God is good. That was fun.”
It was Slater’s first touchdown since Nov. 10, 2007, when he returned a kickoff 89 yards to the house against Arizona State as a UCLA senior. Scoring opportunities have been few and far between since he entered the NFL one year later as a fifth-round Patriots draft pick.
New England initially used Slater as a kick returner, but that petered out after his first two seasons. He’s never seen much action at his listed position of wide receiver, catching just one pass — a 46-yard bomb from Tom Brady back in 2011 — in his pro career.
“I was hoping to throw him one at some point,” Brady said. “He might have had a shot in ’11, on a post. He kind of fell down as he caught it. But it was great seeing him getting into the end zone. He’ll get to keep that ball.”
Slater, who said he absolutely is keeping the ball, credited Jackson for making his moment possible. The second-year cornerback was one of New England’s best players Sunday, following his blocked punt with two interceptions.
“That was something that we felt good about,” Slater said. “J.C. did a great job of timing it up. I can’t ever remember a vice corner blocking a punt since I’ve been here, so (he did) a great job of timing it up, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But that’s just really him just making a play and taking advantage of a look that we saw.”
The Patriots were able to hand the Bills their first loss of the season despite a thoroughly lackluster performance from Brady and Co., which managed just nine points and went three-and-out on seven of its 11 meaningful possessions. New England instead relied on its defense and special teams, tallying four interceptions and five sacks and receiving major kicking-game contributions from Slater, Jackson and punter Jake Bailey.
“This was a knock-down, drag-out (game),” Slater said. “They didn’t want to quit. We didn’t want to quit. We needed every play that we could possibly make. Every snap was critical. Everybody that was in a Patriots uniform today, we needed. This was a good character win for our football team. You’ve got to feel good about winning this one.”