Through ups and downs, Patriots still atop AFC East

JIMMY GOLEN
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Bills Patriots Football

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, left, passes under pressure from Buffalo Bills defensive end Trent Murphy (93) in the first half of an NFL football game, Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The T-shirts read, “The East is Not Enough.”

It's a wonder the New England Patriots bothered to put them on at all.

The defending Super Bowl champions clinched their 11th consecutive AFC East championship with a 24-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills on Saturday, giving them a day to watch the rest of the NFL's playoff picture sort itself out.

With one game to play in the regular season, the Patriots (12-3) are on track for the No. 2 seed in the conference playoffs. A victory over Miami (4-11) in the finale on Sunday, would clinch a first-round bye, as would a Kansas City (11-4) loss to the Los Angeles Chargers (5-10).

That would mean a 10th straight first-round bye for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

“You win next week and you don’t have to play opening week of the playoffs,” defensive back Devin McCourty said. “We get the first week of the playoffs off, so essentially that’s a playoff win for us. I think that guys understand that.”

It's been a decade since the Patriots have faced a real challenge in the division, but this year's Bills came into the Week 16 game still clinging to a chance to dethrone them. It's been even longer, though, since winning the AFC East was enough to satisfy Brady, Belichick and the local fans.

“It’s a great step for us,” Brady said. “And hopefully we can build on it and go play great next week.”

With Sunday's victory by the Ravens, the Patriots were eliminated from contention for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. New England would only fall to the No. 3 seed and have to play in the wild-card round if it loses to the Dolphins and the Chiefs beat the Chargers. (Kansas City holds the tiebreaker over the Patriots by virtue of their 23-16 victory in Week 14.)

WHAT'S WORKING

Brady and the Patriots offense had struggled the previous eight games. He snapped a string of nine straight games with a passer rating below 100 and five straight weeks with completing less than 55% of his passes — both the longest of his career. Against Buffalo, he threw for 271 yards and a TD for a rating of 111, completing 26 of 33 passes (79%).

The key may have been a balanced attack: New England had 35 runs and 33 passes; 10 first downs on the ground and 11 by air; and scored one rushing TD and one passing.

“We’ve all seen Tom play a lot of his best football in the most critical games of the year, in the most critical situations in those games," coach Bill Belichick said. “He was on the money; he was sharp. That’s what we need from everybody this time of year. We’ve got to play like this every week or our season is going to end quickly.”

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The concussion protocol. Julian Edelman remained motionless on the turf early in the second half after colliding head-first with Bills safety Jordan Poyer's gut. Only after penalty flags came flying in did the Patriots receiver arise. If spotters suspected a concussion, he should have been removed immediately, but he remained in the game until after the Patriots kicked a field goal. Then he was taken off for testing and missed about a quarter of the game

Afterward, Edelman said that he only stayed down to try to draw a penalty flag on Poyer, so he didn't need to come off at all.

STOCK UP

RB Rex Burkhead had the ball punched free after catching a pass on the Patriots opening drive, but offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel went back to him on the second play of the next possession. Burkhead set a career high for receiving yards, catching four passes for 77 yards. He also had 20 yards rushing, including a 1-yard run for the go-ahead score.

STOCK DOWN

Brady as a downfield blocker. The 42-year-old six-time Super Bowl champion was the lead blocker for receiver N'Keal Harry on a reverse. Brady actually did a good job of clearing out Tre'Davious White, as Harry picked up 18 yards. But it may not be a risk the Patriots want to take too often.

“I’m pretty poor at just about everything other than throwing the ball,” Brady said. “So, I was trying to just get in his way. But, it was a good, hard run by N’Keal.”

INJURED

Edelman passed the concussion protocol and returned to the game, but defensive back Jason McCourty, who missed last week's game with a groin problem, aggravated the injury and did not return. Offensive lineman Marcus Cannon left with an ankle injury and did not return.

KEY NUMBER

17: The number of AFC East titles for Brady in his 18 years as the starter, including 11 in a row. The second-most for a quarterback was Peyton Manning, with 12.

WHAT'S NEXT

The Dolphins (4-11) are coming off an overtime victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. In other circumstances, Belichick would use this game to rest up his starters for the playoffs. But a loss to Miami could force the Patriots into the wild-card round.

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