FOXBOROUGH - When the Patriots traveled to Buffalo in Week 3, they raced to a three-touchdown lead against the Bills and looked to be well on their way to extending their win streak against their AFC East foe before Buffalo began staging a comeback that ultimately led to its first victory over New England since 2003.
So perhaps it was only fitting that in the rematch yesterday, on the final day of the NFL regular season, it was the Bills who had an early 21-0 lead only to hand it all back.
New England locked up the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs by virtue of its 49-21 win against Buffalo, though once again it took a come-from-behind effort. Last week against Miami, the Patriots dug a 17-0 hole in the first half before ultimately turning things around.
Though they were able to bounce back yesterday, too, the locker room was quite subdued for a squad that had just completed a 13-3 season and wrapped up home field advantage. There was concern that the Patriots have to use their bye week to eliminate their recent streak of slow starts.
“Bad football by us. It’s the players,’’ right guard Brian Waters said. “We’re going to look at the film and figure out it’s one guy here, one guy there, guys just not doing their jobs and not doing it well enough.’’
“We have to start faster,’’ linebacker Rob Ninkovich said. “The playoffs are about to begin; we can’t be down 21 points. We have to keep working.’’
Coach Bill Belichick was none too happy either, though he gave his team credit for once again battling back.
“Unfortunately, we had another slow start,’’ he said. “We weren’t trying to start the game that way. Give the players credit for turning that around. They made plays, they played good.
“We just try to play 60 minutes every week. We try to start fast and finish strong. We’ve done some of both and some of neither. We have to keep trying to get better every week.’’
Despite concerns about his left shoulder, quarterback Tom Brady finished 23 for 35 for 338 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, and four sacks. He ended the season with 5,235 passing yards, becoming the second player this season to break the 27-year-old season passing record of 5,084 set by Dan Marino.
New Orleans’ Drew Brees, who last week broke the record, played long into the Saints’ blowout of the Panthers yesterday, and finished the season with 5,476 yards. Later yesterday, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford became the fourth player to reach 5,000, finishing with 5,038.
Also yesterday, the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski, who recently established a season record for receiving touchdowns by a tight end, set the season record for receiving yards by a tight end (1,327). Both he and the Saints’ Jimmy Graham (1,310) broke the record of 1,290 yards, held for more than 30 years by Kellen Winslow, who set the mark in 1980 with the Chargers.
When the Patriots pulled Brady and put in Brian Hoyer, he threw directly to Gronkowski for a 22-yard sideline catch that gave him the record.
“That last play I had Billy [O’Brien, offensive coordinator] call that because I wasn’t exactly sure where he was and I thought he deserved another chance to go up and make another play,’’ Belichick said. “He’s had a great year and he’s worked hard. I thought he deserved that.’’
Vince Wilfork said during the week that the Patriots owed the Bills after that Week 3 loss, and Welker said that “absolutely’’ he and Brady would play the entire game with New England in pursuit of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
But for a while the Patriots looked lackluster, seemingly forgetting the bigger-picture goal of being able to stay home in the postseason and the revenge factor.
On the seventh play of the game, with Buffalo having just converted on fourth and 1 in its own territory, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick looked deep for receiver Derek Hagan. Hagan and Patriots cornerback Antwaun Molden got tangled up, with Hagan hitting the turf. A flag was thrown, and the pass interference call gave the Bills first down from the New England 4.
On second down from the 4, Fitzpatrick gave the ball to Tashard Choice, and he took it in for a touchdown.
New England went three-and-out on its first possession, and the Bills came right back, scoring again, on a 10-play, 70-yard drive.
Fitzpatrick found Stevie Johnson for an 18-yard touchdown.
After the score, Johnson lifted his jersey to reveal a T-shirt on which he had written “Happy New Year!’’ While the message was harmless, the move drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty.
Buffalo coach Chan Gailey benched Johnson, the team’s best receiver and a soon-to-be free agent, for the rest of the game.
The Bills scored again on their third possession, with New England allowing five consecutive plays of 12 or more yards as Buffalo went ahead, 21-0.
No sooner did the second quarter begin, however, than did the Patriots start clawing back. A nine-play touchdown drive, capped by BenJarvus Green-Ellis’s 1-yard run, was followed by a seven-play scoring march, punctuated by Aaron Hernandez’s 39-yard score, when he began high-stepping a few yards from the end zone.
The Patriots went into halftime down only a touchdown, 21-14.
New England opened the third with two field goals, and then Sterling Moore, who has had an eventful rookie season of being cut and re-signed, of starting and sitting, made a momentum-changing interception, picking off Fitzpatrick for the first of four interceptions by the Patriots.
Brady, starting at the Buffalo 25, needed five plays to get his team into the end zone, on a 17-yard toss to Gronkowski, and New England made the 2-point conversion to take a 7-point lead, 28-21.
And the Patriots never looked back, adding fourth-quarter scores on a 3-yard run by Green-Ellis, a 7-yard Gronkowski catch, and a 21-yard interception return by Moore.
In the coming days they’ll do some self-improvement and also look ahead to their potential divisional-round opponent, but in every corner of the locker room it was acknowledged that with the playoffs coming, the Patriots can’t afford to dig big holes and expect to successfully climb out.