ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - When the Patriots shuffled into the cramped confines of the visitors’ locker room at Ralph Wilson Stadium after their 34-3 undressing of the Bills, they each found a gift waiting inside their stall: a navy blue cap declaring them "Back to Back/2010 AFC East champions" with a matching T-shirt tucked under the bill of the cap.
They were evidence of what New England had achieved: yet another division title, the eighth in the Bill Belichick era.
And with this AFC East crown came a wholly welcome bonus that was unforeseen four months ago: the top overall seed in the AFC, a first-round bye, and home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
"It never gets old. We never get tired of winning," quarterback Tom Brady said. "That’s what we have been preparing for all offseason and training camp, to have a chance to do something pretty special today, in a tough division. To come out victorious, obviously everyone is very proud of it."
New England was not considered by many to be the favorite in the division when the season began, with the national media darlings in New York and a Dolphins team seen as up-and-coming garnering all the attention.
Patriots had reconstructed their defense, filling it with first- and second-year players, they had some question marks on offense, and they were staring at a difficult schedule. And after a Week 2 loss to the Jets and some early struggles, those thoughts were only reinforced.
But the steady hand of Belichick, a receiver swap a quarter of the way in (Randy Moss out, Deion Branch in), and the faster-than-expected development of a young team have led to the Patriots going from afterthought to force once again.
"We took a big step in the right direction today in accomplishing one of our goals," safety James Sanders said. "It feels great. It’s always special when you win the division, and to be 13-2 now says a lot.
"I wouldn’t say we never expected it, we’ve just been focusing one week at a time, and then you look up and see that you’re 13-2, it’s kind of incredible, especially with our schedule this year."
Knowing that a win would clinch the division and top seed but not wanting his team to overlook Buffalo, a squad his Patriots had beaten 14 straight times, Belichick began reminding players and reporters early in the week that the Bills had won four of their last six games and easily could have won a fifth.
Yesterday, however, it was hard to believe that Buffalo had won even once this season.
In a performance safety Donte Whitner called an embarrassment, the Bills turned the ball over seven times, and only three of their 12 possessions lasted more than five plays.
"We were feeling pretty good all week," said Whitner. "We felt like we did the things that our coaches wanted us to do and we could come out and get a win.
"We couldn’t stop the run on defense, we couldn’t stop the pass, we couldn’t do anything on offense, and we can’t turn the ball over on special teams. When you do that against a good team like New England, the results are 34-3, and that’s what happened."
The Bills got off to a strong enough start, however. Buffalo got the ball to start the game and picked up 59 yards on the first six plays of the afternoon, all on the ground.
But rather than see what would happen if they continued to let backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller carry them, the Bills looked to pass once they got in the red zone.
Steve Johnson had a touchdown waved off when he couldn’t get both feet down inbounds, and a third-down attempt for Johnson from Ryan Fitzpatrick on the opposite side of the end zone was tipped away by Kyle Arrington.
Buffalo settled for a short field goal and never scored again, though it was close to posting a touchdown in the fourth quarter - only to have Fitzpatrick picked off in the end zone by Dane Fletcher.
It was Fitzpatrick’s third interception of the day; he also had two lost fumbles. Spiller also fumbled twice, once on a kickoff return. New England turned the season-high seven turnovers into 21 points.
The Patriots gave up 64 rushing yards on Buffalo’s first drive but just 61 the rest of the way.
"The first series we were out there, they played nickel defense against our nickel offense, and then when we went out there the second series with the same offense, they put all their big people out there," Bills coach Chan Gailey said. "They basically were saying, `We’re going to stop the run,’ by putting those seven guys in there. And we couldn’t throw it well enough, consistently, to move the football."
Since their loss in Cleveland seven weeks ago, the Patriots have racked up 22 takeaways without a turnover - their seven games without a turnover adds to their NFL record.
For the year, New England has a takeaway/giveaway ratio of plus-27.
Danny Woodhead’s 29-yard run - in which he was essentially untouched - was the Patriots’ first touchdown of the afternoon, followed closely by the first of Rob Gronkowski’s two scores at the start of the second quarter.
Alge Crumpler scored his first touchdown as a Patriot just before halftime to put New England ahead, 24-3.
Early in the third quarter, Brady set an NFL record for pass attempts without an interception, with 309. Cleveland’s Bernie Kosar had held the mark, set in 1991; both were playing for Belichick when they set the record.
Brady threw just 27 passes yesterday (completing 15), but with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Woodhead leading the Patriots to a season-high 217 rushing yards, Brady didn’t have to carry the offense.
"That’s great," Belichick said of Brady’s record. "Tom does a great job of managing the game and taking care of the ball. I think he deserves that [record]. He’s pretty careful with the ball."
New England Saturday declared six players out, all of them key contributors, because of injury, and several players, including Brady and Sanders, have been dealing with flu-like symptoms.
Add the bumps, bruises, and illness to the potential distraction of Christmas week, and Belichick was full of praise for his team.
"It was a tough week; I really have a lot of respect for our players," he said. "We’ve got a couple of guys with the flu and the injuries coming off the Green Bay game, we had a tough time practicing this week. But they did a good job and fought through it."
They fought through, and were rewarded with hats, T-shirts, and a much-needed week of rest in January.