FOXBOROUGH — Now, the real season begins, and the story of the 2013 Patriots will be written.
Will they bring the long sought after fourth Lombardi Trophy to Patriot Place or is it another year of dancing with history only to have another team cut in and go home with the large silver object of desire of the Patriots? Football has become a zero sum game in Foxborough — win it all or it means nothing at all.
That’s too simplistic a way of looking at it, of course. The Patriots’ perennial status as winners should be savored, particularly in a league not built, but rigged, for parity, particularly in a season in which they’ve been decimated by injuries. Take a deep breath and savor what the Patriots have accomplished by going 12-4 and locking up the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs.
But the Patriots, who secured a fourth straight first-round playoff bye with a 34-20 drenched drubbing of the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium Sunday, are victims of their own remarkable, metronomic success. They accomplish more than other teams, so more is expected, inside and outside the walls of Fort Foxborough.
“We advanced. It’s great. We put together a great season, but it doesn’t mean much now,” said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. “We’re seeded. We got to go out there and play great football. No matter what team we play, we’re going to have to play a 60-minute game and play well 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 see what we’re made of in a couple of weeks.”
The Patriots are not at full strength, but you have to like their chances. They’ve shown resiliency and an ability to win in different fashions. On Sunday, they trampled over the Bills for 267 rushing yards, led by Tampa Bay Buccaneers castoff LeGarrette Blount, who looked like an MBTA train with no brakes.
All the Patriots have to do is win one game at home and they’re in the AFC Championship game. Don’t make any plans for Jan. 19, the date of the AFC title game.
All five times in the halcyon days of Brady and coach Bill Belichick that the Patriots have advanced to the Super Bowl they have had the first-round bye.
“We’re in the second round of the playoffs now,” said Belichick, succinctly summing up the importance of the bye like only he can.
The importance of a period to convalesce was highlighted when wide receiver Aaron Dobson left the game in the first quarter with a foot injury and did not return.
Unlike the ending to the Patriots’ season, the outcome against the Bills felt like it was predetermined. Buffalo is among the favorite foils of the Patriots in the Brady-Belichick era. The Bills have never won at Gillette Stadium. They have never beaten Brady within the borders of the state of Massachusetts.
If the AFC East is the Patriots’ playground, the Bills are their favorite plaything.
The Patriots started their game at 4:25 p.m. knowing that they needed a victory to clinch a first-round bye and avoid slipping to the fourth seed in the AFC playoffs, after both Cincinnati and Indianapolis won earlier in the afternoon to finish at 11-5.
It was apparent by 5:45 p.m. that the Patriots were playing only for the No. 2 seed, as Peyton Manning and the Broncos were running up records and the score on the Oakland Raiders, building a 31-0 halftime lead in Oakland.
The Broncos broke the 2007 Patriots’ record for points in a season. They had 603 at halftime and finished with 606.
The Patriots led, 16-3, at halftime, and had rushed for 173 yards on 23 carries, 7.5 yards per rush, at the break, taking full advantage of Buffalo defensive tackle Marcell Dareus being suspended for the first half for a violation of team rules.
It was the second-most rushing yards in the first half in team history.
Blount, imbued with the spirit of Jim Brown, ran for 118 yards and a 36-yard touchdown in the first half on his way to a record-setting day. He hit Buffalo linebacker Nigel Bradham so hard on a 14-yard rush in the second quarter that Bradham’s helmet came off.
Blount ran for a career-high 189 yards and two touchdowns and set a franchise record for all-purpose yards with 334 (189 rushing and 145 kickoff return yards).
The Bills crept close to the Patriots in the fourth quarter, but like most teams their football IQ dropped precipitously in crunch time. With the score 16-10, the Patriots were prepared to settle for a 19-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter, missing a golden opportunity after Blount’s 83-yard kickoff return.
But Dareus jumped offside on fourth and 1. On the next play, Brady hit Shane Vereen for a 5-yard touchdown, followed by a 2-point conversion toss to Julian Edelman to make it 24-10 with 14:56 to play.
Minus the gift from Dareus, the Patriots were unable to find the end zone in the red zone, settling for three short field goals. In January, that could be the difference between a trip to New Jersey for Super Bowl XLVIII and an early vacation.
Also, the Bills rushed for 169 yards on 35 carries, against the Patriots’ 30th-ranked run defense. But in today’s NFL it’s better to have porous run defense than the 31st-ranked pass defense the Patriots had when they made it to Super Bowl XLVI.
The Patriots beat the Bills on the sodden, final Sunday of 2013 to close out a salute-worthy regular season. But they will be measured as a team by what happens in 2014.
“There are no games bigger than the ones we have coming up,” said Brady.
For the Patriots, the regular season is prologue. The tale of the season is just beginning.