The New England Patriots have locked up a first-round bye and remain in the driver's seat for homefield advantage throughout the playoffs after a 37-16 win over the Buffalo Bills on Christmas Eve in Foxboro.
Initially looking like a contest, the score escalated quickly in the second half to turn into a laugher. The Patriots are now 12-3 and clinched a bye with the help of former backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who helped lead the 49ers to a 44-33 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Lacking the suspense of last week's finish in Pittsburgh, the Patriots were able to coast for much of the fourth quarter thanks to a combination of an improved pass rush, some unlikely heroes and some questionable decision-making across the sideline.
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"Always good to get a division win," New England head coach Bill Belichick said after the game. "I thought our team really responded well this week. It was obviously a big win over Pittsburgh and I thought the players came in Wednesday really ready to go to work and attack this game with a good mindset."
There was almost no shred of doubt after Kelvin Benjamin’s touchdown catch was overturned with 2 seconds left in the first half that the Patriots would overcome a sloppy, uninspiring first half that featured some of their worst football of the season.
The Bills (8-7) received the second half kickoff and re-took the lead on a Stephen Hauschka field goal, 16-13, only to meltdown and see the odds of their first postseason berth since 1999 go up in flames.
On the heels of Stephen Gostkowski's 34-yard field goal to square things up at 16 points apiece, Malcom Brown began the process of systematically destroying Buffalo's confidence. He scrambled to sack Tyrod Taylor for a 15-yard loss on the Bills' first play back on offense and subsequently stuffed Mike Tolbert for no gain to set up a third-and-25 not even the Patriots could relinquish.
Third down defense remains a concern – Buffalo was a healthy 8-for-17 in the game, including 4-for-4 on its very first drive – but once Colton Schmidt's punt was airborne, the Bills kicked away one of their last chances to put up a fight.
Former Bill Mike Gillislee, active for the first time since Week 8, complimented a long gain and long pass interference call drawn by Rob Gronkowski with his first rushing touchdown since Week 2 vs. New Orleans, putting the Patriots ahead for good.
Gillislee's return featured six carries for 28 yards and one catch for 15 yards. With Rex Burkhead and James White on the shelf for the afternoon, Dion Lewis exploded for a career-high 129 yards rushing as the featured back.
"Whenever I'm playing football, I'm having fun," Lewis said.
It was his second career 100-yard game, both coming in the last month.
"I'm just grateful for the opportunity I was given today. My role was a little bit different than it usually is and I just got to take advantage of it."
It wasn't the finest afternoon for MVP-frontrunner Tom Brady, who completed 21 of his 28 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns, a stat line which included his sixth interception in his past five games. But after cashing in on a missed 50-yard field goal by Hauschka, Brady completed all three of his passes on a quick seven-play drive that ended with a touchdown pass to Lewis and extended the New England lead to 30-16 to effectively end the game with 9:27 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Brady's other touchdown pass came in the first half, compliments of a beautiful one-handed catch by Gronkowski that at the time tied the game at 10-10. The two scoring strikes give him 30 on the season; it's the seventh time in his career the Brady has eclipsed the 30-touchdown mark.
Lewis poured salt in Buffalo's wound with a 4-yard rushing touchdown later on in the fourth quarter.
New England had six sacks in all. In addition to Brown, Marquis Flowers had the first 2.5 sacks of his career, Deatrich Wise Jr. had 1.5 sacks, and Malcolm Butler also had a strip sack.
That total doesn't include Trey Flowers, who found other ways to impact the game. He finished with eight tackles, three of which went for losses, and had an additional quarterback hit. LeSean McCoy had a decent game for the Bills (17 rushes, 72 yards and five catches for 76 yards) but almost none of his big plays came to the side Trey Flowers occupied, as he did a great job setting the edge on the right side of the defense.
"We understood that we needed to have a big game for us to stay in this and to get a win," Trey Flowers said. "It just came down to us playing physical with fundamentals and technique and being powerful and shedding blocks."
"I'm very happy about it," Marquis Flowers, who led the Patriots with 10 tackles, said of being able to contain Taylor. "It being Christmas is a distraction for everyone, but we came in here and handled our business. The first half, they came out and they stuck with us, but in the second half everybody focused in and big plays were made. I'm really happy for the whole defense."
The Patriots end the regular season next week on Sunday afternoon against the New York Jets. A win will give them the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC – if it isn't already decided by then anyway. The Pats hold the tiebreaker after beating the Steelers (now 11-3), so a Pittsburgh loss to the 4-10 Houston Texans Monday afternoon on NBC would give New England the Christmas gift of homefield advantage through the playoffs.