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Analysis: Patriots play like champs

It's been a tough season for the New England Patriots, but all the bad moments will be forgotten if the team continues dismantling opponents the way it took apart the Buffalo Bills in Sunday's 35-7 win.

New England ran its record to 8-5 and could have clinched the AFC East title, but the Miami Dolphins had other ideas, keeping the race alive with 23-21 win over the Chargers in San Diego. The Patriots, who will clinch with their next win or Dolphins loss, have three games remaining in the regular season: home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next Saturday; at the New York Jets on Dec. 26; and at home against the Dolphins on Jan.1. If they win the division, the Patriots will host a wild card game the weekend of Jan. 7.

The 28-point margin of victory is easily the largest of the season for the Patriots, eclipsing last week's 13-point win over the New York Jets. After struggling to a 6-5 record through 11 games, New England has won its last two by a combined score of 51-10. The success has coincided with the steady return of injured players, including LB Tedy Bruschi, DE Richard Seymour, RB Corey Dillon, RB Kevin Faulk and WR David Givens.

The only downside to the game was the continued presence of the injury bug. Quarterback Tom Brady suffered an apparent knee injury on a touchdown run in the first quarter, and cornerback Ellis Hobbs and safety Eugene Wilson both left with injuries in the fourth quarter. Brady was limping noticeably but stayed in the game. Hobbs left and did not return, prompting WR Troy Brown to take a brief turn in the defensive backfield.

In all other aspects, however, the Patriots were overpowering, racking up a team-record 32 first downs and a season-high 494 yards of total offense while holding the Bills to eight first downs and 183 yards of offense.

"It's always good to win in the division, good to win on the road, and I'm proud of our team, the way they played today," said head coach Bill Belichick. "I thought they played hard and made some plays. Played better on third down. Got the ball in the end zone. Kept them out. So it's better than it's been."

The offensive outburst was fueled by Brady and Dillon. Brady completed 29 of 38 passes for 329 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Dillon gained 102 yards on 22 carries with a touchdown and looked the strongest he has at any point during his injury-plagued season.

Much of the credit goes to the offensive line and line coach Dante Scarnecchia. The group lost a starter for the fourth time this season when right tackle Nick Kaczur missed the game with a shoulder injury. When reserve tackle Tom Ashworth stepped in for Kaczur, the team was fielding second-stringers at both right tackle and center and a third-stringer at left tackle.

The team is so deep on the line, however, that each of the replacement players who started on Sunday -- Ashworth, Brandon Gorin and Russ Hochstein -- has started a Super Bowl for the Patriots. New England had to go even deeper when left guard Logan Mankins left the game for a while, and the call was answered by yet another experienced reserve, Gene Mruczkowski, who has been with the Patriots on and off for three seasons.

The defense was just as devastating, picking off Bills' QB J.P. Losman three times and holding RB Willis McGahee to just three yards on eight carries. As a team, the Bills rushed for only 14 yards, with half of those coming on one scramble by Losman. The second-year quarterback, who has one NFL win as a starter, completed only 10 of 27 passes for 181 yards. The Bills were missing WR Eric Moulds, who was suspended for an altercation with a coach during last week's loss to the Dolphins.

The Patriots contained Buffalo with an aggressive assault that yielded three interceptions, two sacks and consistent pressure on Losman.

Buffalo ran only 41 plays and possessed the ball for only 18:01, compared to 82 plays and 41:59 time of possession for New England. The Patriots were successful on third down on both sides of the ball, holding the Bills to 2-of-10 on third-down conversions while converting 11-of-16 on offense.

"I thought we were able to get some pressure on the quarterback, and our coverage was a little bit better," Belichick said. "Our play on third down helped us. We were able to get off the field."

The game started out looking like a tight defensive struggle when the teams went three-and-out on the game's first three possessions. Buffalo broke the silence on their second possession as Losman hit WR Lee Evans on a 58-yard pass after the speedy Evans had beaten CB Asante Samuel. Safety Mike Stone, starting in place of the injured Artrell Hawkins, saved a touchdown with a diving tackle at the New England 10-yard line.

The Bills squandered the red-zone opportunity with two false start penalties, a two-yard loss by McGahee and an incompletion before Losman threw an easy interception to Samuel in the end zone.

From there, the game was all New England. Over the next 33:34, the Patriots scored three touchdowns, ran 53 plays for 375 yards and made 22 first downs. The Bills, meanwhile, ran 21 plays for seven yards with two first downs and no scores.

Buffalo intercepted Brady twice during that moribund stretch but could not help themselves. First, Bills CB Nate Clements stopped a New England drive with an excellent pick in front of Givens in the end zone, but the Bills could do nothing because only eight seconds remained in the half. LB London Fletcher made the second pick on a ball that bounced off the hands of RB Mike Cloud, but Losman turned around and threw a pick to Hobbs on the very next play.

New England opened the lead to 28-0 with 14-play, 78-yard drive to start the fourth quarter. Dillon carried six times for 23 yards on the drive, and Brady completed five passes to five different receivers, including a two-yard TD pass to TE Christian Fauria.

Rookie safety James Sanders finished off the Patriots scoring when he picked off a Losman pass at the Buffalo 39 and ran it in for a touchdown.

The Bills broke the shutout with 2:29 left in the game when Losman and WR Josh Reed connected on a 51-yard touchdown strike.

Brady connected with eight different receivers, with Faulk and Brown each catching six balls. Deion Branch added five catches for a team-leading 83 yards. Faulk, in just his second game back after missing eight games with a foot injury, gained 71 yards receiving and added 14 yards rushing on five carries.

DE Ty Warren led the defense with seven tackles, and LB Rosevelt Colvin added five tackles and a sack.

The Buccaneers will present a major challenge when they visit Foxboro next Saturday. They raised their record to 9-4 on Sunday with a 20-10 win over the Carolina Panthers -- the Bucs' fourth win in their last five games. Should the Patriots win, memories of their mediocre performance in the first 11 games will continue to fade.

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