FOXBOROUGH - As necessary as last week's victory in Pittsburgh was for the Patriots, they couldn't celebrate too long. Having clinched nothing other than the AFC East a week ago, and with a Bills team coming to Foxborough hungry to earn their franchise's first playoff spot since 1999, New England knew it wouldn't be easy to maintain its grip on the No. 1 overall playoff seed in the American Football Conference.
"For sure," cornerback Stephon Gilmore asserted. "They've got a good football team. We knew it was going to be a tough game."
"Oh, yeah, definitely," agreed defensive end Trey Flowers. "We knew what was at stake, so, we knew we were going to get their best shot. They gave it to us and we continued to fight and make plays down the stretch. They definitely got some great players. You can't just completely shut them out, but I think we did all right."
The Patriots also got some help from the replay officials for the second week in a row. But before that, the game unfolded much like it did three weeks ago when the two teams tangled in Orchard Park. Buffalo mounted a few long first-half drives with quarterback Tyrod Taylor and running back LeSean McCoy making plays, but the Bills could manage nothing more than a pair of field goals offensively.
"In the first half, we were getting to third down, but weren't able to get them off the field," Flowers observed. "They're some great players. Tyrod is able to make plays with his arm and his legs. McCoy, tremendous runner. You have to set the edge on him because you know he likes to bounce it [outside]."
It took the Patriots' offense some time to get going as well. For the fifth straight game, Tom Brady threw an interception (something we haven't seen from him in 15 years), only this time it went for a Bills touchdown.
But Brady eventually found his favorite receiving target, Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski, who, for the second week in a row, made several eye-popping catches, including his spinning, one-handed touchdown grab that helped bring the Patriots back level at 10 apiece.
Just before the half, when it seemed the Bills had taken the lead, the Patriots got an early Christmas gift in the form of a replay reversal that negated a tremendous touchdown catch by Bills receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
"I kind of widened him to the sideline and he had to make a great catch and get his feet down," recalled Gilmore, who was guarding Benjamin. "I figured he didn't get his feet down because he was so close to the sideline. I think it could have [intercepted] it, but he's so big, I tried to knock it out when he came down, but he didn't get two feet in."
Rather than heading to the locker room ahead, Buffalo had to settle for a field goal to tie the score at 13. They added another immediately following intermission, but in the second half, New England's offense took control behind running back Dion Lewis, with an assist from seldom-used Mike Gillislee. They combined for three touchdowns and 157 yards rushing.
"Our running backs, the way that they work together and just step in, fill the hole, is just unbelievable," Gronkowski raved. "I mean, they've been doing that since camp this year, just stepping right in. Whoever is in at running back is doing a great job, and it's just awesome to see that. It's good to know that whoever's in there at running back can just keep on stepping it up. They're all great players."
Meanwhile the Patriots clamped down on Taylor, McCoy, and the rest of the Bills' O, particularly in the red zone.
"We needed it, I mean, because everything else wasn't really that good today for us," safety/co-captain Devin McCourty declared. "You know, third down was bad – it probably got a little better in the second half. We got some stops. But overall, second down was bad, again, so we needed to play good in the red area because we were letting them down there a lot."
"We started a little slow. Played better in the second half. That's how we came out with the win," Gilmore continued. "They weren't going to change what they were running. We tightened down on more stuff. Their routes remained the same and we just played better on the routes. They caught a couple of hitches, but they're not going to beat us catching five-yard hitches."
"Being able to get off the field on third downs and being disciplined on the [pass] rush helped us a lot in the second half," added Flowers. "We did a great job of that in the second half."
In a similar spot in 2015, New England needed at least one win in its final two games to secure the No. 1 seed, but the Patriots dropped both and it probably cost them a shot at another Super Bowl. With today's victory, New England held serve. It's possible they can clinch a bye week, even the No. 1 seed, before they take the field again on New Year's Eve versus the New York Jets, but they'll need help from either or both San Francisco and Houston.
Regardless, the Patriots can head into Christmas knowing they control their playoff seeding destiny if they just keep winning.
"Oh yeah, it was a huge victory," Gronkowski concluded. "We've got to keep it rolling."