ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - Last season, the Patriots made history in their regular-season finale, becoming the first team to go 16-0. Yesterday, they made history once again with a regular-season-closing conquest, only this time it was of the unfortunate and disappointing kind.
The Patriots are out of the playoffs despite an 11-5 season, becoming the first team since the NFL switched to a six-playoff-spot-per-conference setup in 1990 to miss the postseason with 11 wins and only the second team since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978 to get 11 wins and miss the playoffs, joining the 1985 Denver Broncos, who coincidentally lost out that year to the Patriots.
The Patriots may have played like a playoff team this season, but they won’t be one.
"Yeah, I mean any time you go 11-5 you think you’ve played well enough to have the opportunity to play in the postseason," said safety James Sanders. "Unfortunately for us this year, it’s kind of different and we [did] not get that chance."
In a season filled with bad breaks, starting with the loss of franchise quarterback Tom Brady just 15 offensive plays into the season, the Patriots just couldn’t catch one on its final day.
Needing a victory and a loss by either the Miami Dolphins to win a sixth straight AFC East title or a loss by the Baltimore Ravens to slip in as the final wild card, the Patriots got neither after doing their part with a wind-whipped 13-0 victory over the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Patriots players could only watch helplessly as the Dolphins defeated the New York Jets, 24-17, at the Meadowlands and the Ravens routed the Jacksonville Jaguars, 27-7, in the 4 o’clock games to also finish at 11-5 and knock New England out of the postseason for the first time since 2002. (The Patriots lost the conference record playoff tiebreaker to both teams, finishing with a 7-5 AFC mark while Miami and Baltimore finished at 8-4.)
"We were all watching. The plane has those little TV screens on it, so we saw our lovely Jets not helping us out," said fullback Heath Evans.
Despite missing out on the postseason, the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick could end a cursed campaign with their heads held high, winning the final four games of the season.
"You know, like Bill said when he called us up at the end, in some years 11 wins will get you homefield advantage," said cornerback Ellis Hobbs. "That wasn’t the case this year. As much as we downplayed things this year the way this team handled adversity from every aspect, to just stay focused and be professionals about everything and just staying focused and doing what we needed to do, my hat is off to every single one of us in here."
The Patriots’ playoff plans are now gone with the wind, which played a major part in their season-ending win over the Bills.
Before the game, the wild wind blew out windows in the Bills’ fieldhouse, uplifted portable toilets in the parking lot, and had the goal posts inside the stadium listing at near 45 degree angles.
The official tally at kickoff was winds out of the southwest at 30-40 miles per hour with gusts up to 50 m.p.h. The wind was blowing from west to east and any kick or punt into the west end of the stadium was an adventure, as Stephen Gostkowski found out in the second quarter.
With the Patriots facing fourth and 4 at the Buffalo 8-yard line, there was a delay to steady the goal post at the west end, which was leaning right harder than Rush Limbaugh.
Gostkowski, who had hit a 33-yarder in the first quarter with the wind, then attempted a 26-yard field goal. The ball hit a wall of wind, coming to a stop in mid-air, and then was whipped wide right.
"It was nuts. It’s almost laughable," said Gostkowski. "I’m just glad it didn’t have any impact on the game. I got to come back and make another one after that. Any field goal in those conditions is tough, even extra points are tough. There is no chip shot out there."
In the first half, the teams combined to run 26 offense plays into the wind and all 26 were runs. Even when pass plays were called, Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel thought better of it and ran with the ball.
"I guess they had to be up to 50 miles per hour, and so to throw into that you just had no accuracy," said Cassel (6 of 8 for 78 yards). "So, we didn’t want to take a chance in possibly turning the ball over."
The first points into the wind came right after the first completed pass.
With the Patriots, who led, 3-0, at halftime, facing fourth and 5 at the Buffalo 14 in the third quarter, Cassel hit Wes Welker for a 12-yard gain. On the next play LaMont Jordan (20 rushes for 64 yards) barreled in from the 2 to cap an 11-play, 43-yard drive that was set up by a strip-sack by Jarvis Green, the first sack of the season for Green, who started in place of the injured Richard Seymour (back). Gostkowski’s extra point fluttered in the wind before clearing the crossbar to give the Patriots a 10-0 lead with 4:39 left in the third quarter.
With Buffalo playing into the wind in the fourth quarter, that lead was insurmountable and the Patriots had beaten the Bills for the 11th straight time and won their 12th straight game in December. But that earned them nothing but a plane ride home and the praise of their coach.
"I think the players gave us all they have," said Belichick. "I respect this group of guys immensely. They’ve worked hard. They’ve put up with me all year, and they fought through a lot of adversity. We lost three tough games - Indianapolis, New York, and Pittsburgh. They battled through that stretch, then came back and won the next four, in a lot of different conditions. They proved mentally and physically that they’re a tough football team."
Just not a playoff-bound one.Chris Forsberg Of The Globe Staff Contributed To This Report