With a division title on the line, the New England Patriots pulled out all the stops and secured themselves hats and t-shirts for the 11th straight year.
In a playoff atmosphere against a division foe, the Patriots capped off a perfect decade in the AFC East with perhaps their most perfect performance of the season.
Hats and t-shirts once again.
It’s a familiar feeling around these parts, and one that perhaps may have been doubted at one time or another this season. The barking from outside the walls of Gillette Stadium became louder than ever that the dynasty may finally be coming to an end, amplified after New England’s second year in a row with back-to-back December losses.
Not so fast.
It was being treated like a playoff game, and the Patriots played it as such. New England defeated the Buffalo Bills for the second time this season, the time at home and by a score of 24-17… and clinched an NFL-record 11th straight division championship in the process.
From top to bottom, this may have been the Patriots’ best performance of the season.
However, the most encouraging part of this Saturday tilt could be this: the formidable defense didn’t force a single turnover, and the offense was still able to hang 24 points on the league’s second-best defensive squad.
The run game was as fluent as it has been all season, with Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, and James White combining for 121 yards, as well as a much-needed score that came from Burkhead late in the fourth quarter that put the Patriots ahead for good. Brady then put a ball on the money to Julian Edelman to complete the two-point conversion and make it a touchdown game.
That brings me to the next area I wanted to cover about this Patriots team, and it’s a trait that may carry them far when the calendar flips to 2020: their heart.
This game provided some glimpses into that drive and passion, and it starts with their 42-year-old quarterback. Brady threw a lead block at the legs of Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White on a N’Keal Harry end-around that moved the chains for New England in the second quarter.
It’s no secret that Julian Edelman is playing at less than 100%, so how about the 10-year veteran flying around and throwing his body on the line and making big catch after big catch – and even going into concussion protocol – before promptly returning and catching a 30-yard pass?
This contest had a big game feel from the opening kickoff, and it certainly provided plenty of entertainment throughout. Credit where it’s due to the Bills, who proved they will be a legit contender in the AFC playoffs this season, and perhaps a sizable threat in the AFC East for years to come as well…
All the negative attention surrounding the Patriots this season has been targeted at the offense and whether they’ll be good enough to propel the Patriots come playoff time. We know the strength of the team is the defense and special teams, but today’s victory provided a lot of bright spots to highlight.
After a Rex Burkhead fumble on the game’s opening drive, New England cashed in for a touchdown on their next series that took over seven minutes off the clock. Later in the game following a Buffalo punt, the Pats were stranded inside their own one-yard-line, and again marched on a 17-play drive that resulted in a field goal.
Would New England have liked a touchdown? Sure; any team would.
But considering where this offense was about three weeks ago on a Sunday night in Houston – battered, bruised, confused, and any other adjective you can use with a negative connotation – that drive against Buffalo on Saturday was a huge success, and a major momentum builder.
On a deeper level than that, it provided a blueprint for what the Patriots will need to do to advance deep into the postseason: take care of the football, open holes for the running game, provide Brady some time to throw, and take large chunks of time off the clock.
It goes back to the AFC Championship last year in which the Patriots’ first drive took over eight minutes and put the Chiefs on their heels.
With the win Saturday evening, New England is guaranteed to be no worse than the No. 3 seed in the AFC. However, everyone in the locker room knows there is still work to be done. A win next week over the 3-11 Dolphins wraps up a first-round bye for the Patriots.
Another playoff atmosphere next week in Gillette Stadium will be warranted, and if the Patriots can secure themselves a week off, that’s essentially a playoff win itself.
Not for nothing, but the No. 1 seed isn’t out of play yet either. It’s not terribly likely, but Baltimore plays Cleveland and Pittsburgh to close out their season, both of whom are still alive for a playoff spot (seriously, check it out here). If Baltimore loses out and New England wins next week, the Patriots will have home field advantage in their conference.
On the flip side of that, if New England should LOSE to Miami next week and the Chiefs win out, Kansas City would get the No. 2 seed and a bye by virtue of holding the tiebreaker over the Patriots.
Looking at the performance that New England put on display Saturday, you should feel pretty confident that the defending champions will take care of business.
There’s never a shortage of excitement down the stretch of the NFL season, and this one is certainly no different. The Pats host the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium next Sunday at 1 pm EST with a playoff bye week on the line.
That’d be one heck of a Christmas gift, amirite?