FOXBOROUGH — There were a couple of scenarios under which the Patriots could clinch a first-round postseason bye on Sunday, but coach Bill Belichick stressed only one to his players: win.
Simple, direct, and to the point (which is really the only way Belichick knows): beating the Bills in the regular-season finale would take all of those “ifs” and “ors” out of the equation, and give New England a much-needed week of rest during wild-card weekend.
The Patriots sewed up the No. 2 seed in the AFC with a 34-20 win over Buffalo at rain-soaked Gillette Stadium, remarkably their 12th victory in what easily could have become a washout season given all the injuries and on-field and off-field drama this team has endured since the offseason.
“It was a slosh out there,” Matthew Slater said. “We were playing soaked and that required a lot of mental toughness. It wasn’t easy to go out and execute, but we did that.
“It was a great team effort. You never want to back into earning yourself a bye, and we went out and earned it with our play on the field. So you’ve got to be excited about that.”
It is the eighth time they’ve earned the bye during the Bill Belichick era, and fourth year in a row, tying the mark set by the Cowboys and 49ers, who both garnered byes from 1992-95.
And New England needs it. The Patriots came into the afternoon with several key players banged up, then saw Aaron Dobson leave for the day in the first half with a foot injury, Logan Mankins leave and return with an ankle injury, and Brandon Spikes, who has been fighting through the pain of a knee injury for several weeks, leave the game early because of that knee.
“It’s very important,” cornerback Aqib Talib said of the time off. “We’ve got guys with nagging injuries” — including himself — “and that week will do wonders. It was very important to get that win.”
The star of the day for New England was running back LeGarrette Blount, whose two long kickoff returns (where have those been all season?) set up a fourth-quarter touchdown and a field goal. The fourth-year back, in his first season with the Patriots, also scored a rushing touchdown in the quarter.
All told, Blount had 24 carries for 189 yards, the best rushing performance in a game for New England in 15 years, plus two touchdowns, both of them more than 30 yards. Combined with his 145 kick return yards, he set a franchise record with 334 all-purpose yards.
“It was a tremendous game by LeGarrette,” Belichick said. “[He was] clearly the best player on the field. He did a good job running the ball, we did a good job blocking — the guys in front of him did a good job blocking, gave him an opportunity to get started. He’s a guy that if you can get him started, he can really make some yards.”
Acquired on draft weekend from the Buccaneers in exchange for Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick, Blount’s arrival was met with little fanfare: after a 1,007-yard season in Tampa Bay as an undrafted rookie in 2010, he was supplanted by Doug Martin in 2012 and deemed expendable.
But as Shane Vereen missed half the season with injuries, Brandon Bolden was injured and ineffective, and Stevan Ridley struggled with fumbles, Blount was steady-if-not-spectacular all season, the only running back to play in all 16 games.
Talib, who played with Blount in Tampa Bay and encouraged Belichick to get Blount when the trade offer came, was thrilled for the man he called his best friend in the league.
“That’s wonderful — having a day like that, a game like that, and to be on the same team with me again, man, live right next door to me, I can’t do nothing but smile,” Talib said. “That’s my dog.”
As big a role as Blount’s first long return, which was 83 yards, played in New England taking what would be an insurmountable lead, the home team also got a gift from embattled Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus.
With Stephen Gostkowski lined up for a chip-shot field goal that would have given the Patriots a 19-10 lead, Dareus was flagged for encroachment.
The Patriots got the ball at the 5 and a fresh set of downs, and Tom Brady (14 for 24, 122 yards, one touchdown, one interception) hit Vereen with a screen pass to the left that Vereen took in for the touchdown. They went for 2, and though Brady had to backpedal because of pressure, he found a wide-open Julian Edelman for the conversion.
Dareus’s mistake ended up being a 5-point swing in New England’s favor. The former first-round pick started the Bills’ first 14 games, but then was benched for the first quarter in Week 16 against Miami for being late to team meetings. The day after his benching, he was late again, leading to him being benched for the first half of Sunday’s game.
Defensively, the Patriots did give up some big passing plays to quarterback Thad Lewis, who started in place of injured rookie E.J. Manuel, but Lewis also had some moments of indecision that led to costly sacks.
The running back tandem of C.J. Spiller (105 yards) and Fred Jackson (60) had some success as well, but they have been strong all season for the Bills, who entered the game as the second-ranked rushing offense in the league.
Though the Patriots closed out the season well against Baltimore and Buffalo, those numbers are part of the reason New England’s defensive players acknowledged improvement but a need to get even better now that they playoffs have arrived.
“I feel like we’re definitely getting better, but there’s always areas of improvement — red zone, big plays, those types of things,” Andre Carter said. “Those things can always improve.”
Another AFC East title was goal No. 1 for the season, and now the Patriots can tick the bye week off their to-do list. Now the real work starts.
“We advanced, it’s great, we put together a great [regular] season, but it doesn’t mean much now,” Brady said. “We’re seeded; we’ve got to go out there and play great football. No matter what the conditions are and no matter what team we play, we’re going to have to play a 60-minute game, play good in all three phases.
“I think we’ve worked hard to put ourselves in this position, we’ve earned it – 12-4 is a good record. We’ll really see what we’re made of here in a few weeks.”