ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- It has been a trying season. An unusual season. An injury-plagued season.
A season in which the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Patriots have never looked like a probable three-time defending Super Bowl champion.
Until yesterday, that is.
Whether the consistent inconsistency is behind them will be determined in the coming weeks, but for one day, at least, the Patriots looked like one of the dominant teams in the NFL.
Of course, Buffalo’s ineptness had a lot to do with New England’s magnificence, but yesterday’s 35-7 (snow) blasting was the Patriots’ best performance of the season. And while the 71,810 at Ralph Wilson Stadium took to booing the home team, the Patriots were in celebration mode early in the second half.
“We enjoy winning and having fun,” said receiver Deion Branch. “If you noticed, around the end of the third quarter, guys were laughing and we were enjoying it.
“The game wasn’t over we wouldn’t ever say they were out of the game but at the same time, we were having fun.
“For one part of the season, it wasn’t [like that]. In previous years . . . you can just see the camaraderie on the field and how much fun we’re having on the field, and earlier this year that wasn’t there. But we’ve gotten that back.”
With the victory, the Patriots (8-5) maintained a two-game lead atop the AFC East on Miami, which beat San Diego yesterday. Any New England win or Miami loss clinches the Patriots’ third straight division title.
The steady snowfall did little to slow the Patriots, who set a franchise record with 32 first downs. New England put up a season-high 494 yards, with Tom Brady limping to a 29-of-38 day for 329 yards, and Corey Dillon rushing for 102 yards on 22 attempts.
And defensively, the Patriots were unconcerned that Buffalo quarterback J.P. Losman (10 of 27 for 181 yards) could make enough throws to beat them after they shut down the Bills’ running game.
Brady, who injured his left leg on a 3-yard run to start the scoring barrage, finished with more rushing yards (17 on four carries) than the Bills (14 yards on 12 attempts) did as a team. Buffalo tailback Willis McGahee ran the ball eight times and managed just 3 yards.
“When you can put them in longer-yardage situations, it gives you more options,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “When it’s third and 10, they’re going to have a hard time getting all five receivers that far downfield, so there are fewer guys you have to defend. And if the quarterback scrambles, he’s got farther to go than in short-yardage situations.”
What Belichick left out of his winning formula was the fact that with Losman at quarterback (and his top weapon Eric Moulds suspended for the contest), the Patriots could unleash a host of blitz packages with little fear that he would make them pay.
Losman connected on a 58-yard pass to Lee Evans in the first quarter and he hooked up with a winding Josh Reed for a 51-yard touchdown with just over two minutes remaining to avert a shutout. Otherwise, the Bills ran 39 plays for 74 yards.
It was not pretty.
“Obviously, it was a poor performance,” said Buffalo coach Mike Mularkey, whose squad has lost six of its last seven games. “Disappointing. It seems like everything that could go wrong, did go wrong, all the way to the end.”
Buffalo (4-9) had a shot at getting on the board first, after Evans served up twice the embarrassment to the New England secondary with a double move on double coverage that got him behind Asante Samuel and Michael Stone for the long gain.
But three plays later, Samuel accepted a gift interception from Losman in the end zone to stop the drive.
The Patriots promptly went 80 yards in eight plays, capped by Brady’s 3-yard scramble. Brady limped to the bench to have his left leg and knee checked, but he was up a few minutes later, walking around gingerly, and didn’t miss any playing time.
He scrambled a couple of more times and even threw a block on a double reverse that was ruled an illegal crackback, as he picked off Troy Vincent trying to free up Branch.
“He’s out there running around, making plays running, which you usually don’t see from Tom, but they’ve come at some key times recently and that’s good,” Belichick said.
Brady did throw two interceptions both inside the red zone to somewhat slow the Patriots, but that was about the only negative in a game New England led, 35-0, after rookie safety James Sanders returned an interception of a pass that was tipped by Tedy Bruschi 39 yards for a score with 2:43 left.
Dillon scored on a 12-yard sprint around right end in the second quarter, and Troy Brown took a swing pass and stiff-armed his way past Eric King on his way to the end zone from 5 yards out to put the Patriots ahead, 21-0, at the end of the third period.
New England went 78 yards in 14 plays, ending with tight end Christian Fauria’s 2-yard touchdown catch, to start the fourth period and bring an end to Brady’s day. Doug Flutie, who spent three seasons with the Bills, finished up for the Patriots.
New England has won four of its last five and two in a row by a combined score of 51-10.
“It feels good. Everybody’s out there putting out their maximum effort and they’re having fun doing it,” said defensive end Ty Warren, who led the Patriots with seven tackles. “You can’t beat that. But we’re just looking to build upon the good things and fix the things that need to be fixed.
“Sometimes wins can be overrated, so you don’t want to get too high or too low. We haven’t won the Super Bowl, you know what I mean? We still have games to play, and a tough team in Tampa Bay coming [to Foxborough Saturday]. That’s where our focus is going to be.”