Not since the early 2000s, long before Tom Brady had fully established himself as TOM BRADY, have the New England Patriots identified as a run-first operation on offense.
That still likely isn’t completely the case. But on a day when Brady and the passing game barely showed a pulse until late in the third quarter, it was the Sony Michel-led rushing attack that carried the Patriots to a 24-12 victory over the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium to finally clinch the AFC East title on their third try.
By clinching the division, New England is assured of its 10th consecutive postseason berth -- a new NFL record, surpassing the 1975-83 Dallas Cowboys and 2002-10 Indianapolis Colts.
News got even better for the Patriots after their game on Sunday, when the Philadelphia Eagles knocked off the Houston Texans, 32-30.
New England accumulated 273 yards on the ground, a season-high, with Michel pacing the unit with 116 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown run in the first quarter which put the Patriots ahead for good.
"We had a goal of coming out and being physical," guard Shaq Mason said of the team's running game prowess. "Whenever we can get the run game going, that's definitely a positive for us. As an [offensive] line, you want to impose your will on the defense. That definitely helped us."
Entering the game, Buffalo had the NFL’s No. 2 defense in terms of yards per game allowed, and the ninth-overall rush defense.
James White had a 27-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, part of his 41 yards on the afternoon, while Cordarrelle Patterson had 66 yards on an array of end-around plays that the Bills had no answers for. Rex Burkhead tacked on 39 yards rushing for New England.
The passing offense, on the other hand, was downright dreadful at times on Sunday afternoon. Adjusting to life without Josh Gordon, neither Chris Hogan nor Phillip Dorsett was targeted by Brady. Rob Gronkowski was targeted three times and failed to have a reception, just the fourth time in his career he’s been held without a catch.
"Yeah, we didn't have our best game in the pass game, but we won," Brady said. "So, I think everyone's feeling pretty good about winning."
Julian Edelman was the only wide receiver to ostensibly show up for New England, hauling in six passes for 70 yards and a 31-yard touchdown pass from Brady in the third quarter to help increase the Patriots’ lead to 21-6.
Brian Hoyer entered the game for Brady on New England’s drive that began with 6:38 to go in the fourth quarter. Brady finished 13 of 24 for just 126 yards and two interceptions, but in the process managed to surpass 4,000 yards passing in a season for the 10th time in his career.
"I thought it was the right thing to do," Belichick said of his decision to yank Brady when he did.
Brady also said he wasn't surprised that he was taken out when he was.
Buffalo mustered just 72 yards on the ground, one week after the Pittsburgh Steelers torched the Patriots for 158 on 6.3 yards per carry.
"We were just able to be where we were supposed to be at," defensive tackle Malcom Brown said. "We basically just went back to work and tried to fix the problems we had. That's what you do after a bad game, you just come back in and go back to work."
Jason McCourty had an interception of Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen late in the fourth quarter, as well as a forced fumble that was recovered by Malcom Brown. Rookie J.C. Jackson also picked Allen off in the first half.
Allen was abysmal, completing 20 of 41 passes for 217 yards and the two picks. He also threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Zay Jones with 1:08 left in the fourth quarter, the first touchdown Buffalo scored against New England in eight quarters this season.
The Patriots close out the regular season at home next week vs. the New York Jets on Sunday, Dec. 30 at 1 p.m.