ORCHARD PARK and ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Clinching home-field advantage was a cinch.
Getting home at all was another story.
New England's 34-3 romp over the Buffalo Bills this afternoon gave the Patriots the Christmas present they'd been hoping for: a first-round bye in the playoffs and guaranteed home games for the Divisional Playoff and (potentially) the AFC Championship Game.
The game itself was somewhat surprisingly easy for the Patriots. Surprising, because the Bills are a team with a losing record, yes, but one that has fought valiantly in every other game this season. They were a team that was one dropped touchdown away from having won five of its last six games.
The Patriots, meanwhile, were depleted by injuries along their defensive line, infected with a flu bug that plagued the locker room all week, and dealing with the depressing notion of having to leave their families on Christmas Day to travel to this distant, desolate place.
But those considerable distractions couldn't keep the Patriots' eyes off their shiny prize. Their focus was sharp and unwavering. Even if their play wasn't always perfect.
On the first play of their first offensive possession, QB Tom Bradyunderthrew a wide open Rob Gronkowski. The rookie tight end was uncovered sprinting down the middle of the field and would've easily scored on his seam route. But Brady and Gronk made up for it later with a pair of touchdown throws.
Wes Welkerwas uncharacteristically skittish today as well. He flat-out dropped three very catchable passes from Brady. Meanwhile, the Patriots defense surrendered 125 rushing yards to Buffalo, the bulk of which came in the first half.
By and large, though, New England looked like a team on a mission, and they accomplished it.
"That was the whole talk during the week, not letting Christmas, the holidays getting in the way of what we wanted to do," linebacker Tully Banta-Cain said in the post-game locker room, sporting his AFC East Champions hat and t-shirt.
"Bill [Belichick] said it best: We win today, we'll have a big gift under the Christmas tree, and that's these shirts and this hat."
Brady and safety James Sanderswere among those battling the flu this week. And while they were under the weather, they and the rest of their teammates had to overcome the weather.
A storm system that dumped a rare blanket of Christmas snow on parts of the South came barreling up the eastern seaboard – right when the Patriots were scheduled to land back in New England.
As game time neared, weather forecasts grew more dire, with mounting snowfall totals, howling winds, and blizzard conditions at times. Airports throughout the Northeast began shutting down, which forced the team's travel planners to consider all eventualities and contingencies.
By game's end, the determination had been made to stay overnight in western New York. But with Buffalo hosting the World Junior Hockey Championships (a 12-nation tournament featuring youth teams from all over the world), hotel space was limited. So, the team had to arrange hastily for lodging in Rochester, a 1-hour-40-minute drive east of Buffalo.
Players found out about the last-minute itinerary changes when they got to the visitors locker room or Ralph Wilson Stadium after the game.
Moments later, a resigned-to-the-situation Brady told reporters with a chuckle, "We're not even stuck in Buffalo, we're stuck in Rochester, I guess. We'll take a little bus ride and, who knows when we'll get in."
"I've never even heard of Rochester," Sanders insisted.
With playful smirk, he added, "I said to [cornerback] Darius Butlerearlier, 'Winning the AFC East Championship and the first-round bye is priceless; spending the holidays in Rochester is garbage time.'"
Sanders, like many of his teammates, were so focused on their preparations for the game that they didn't realize just how bad the storm back home was.
"To be honest, I didnt now anything about it until Pat [Chung]told me in the middle of the game and was like, 'Man, there's like 20 inches of snow in Boston.' I was like, 'Are you serious?'"
As a result, most players didn't have any extra clean clothes … apart from the AFC East Champions hats and t-shirts they received after the win. Securing the division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs helped ease the burden of having to miss yet another day with their families during this holiday season.
"Yeah, I've got an extra t-shirt. That's all that matters," Banta-Cain proudly exclaimed.
"Can't get back to our families," echoed nose tackle and co-captain Vince Wilfork, "but you know what, with a 'W,' to win the East, we knew it was going to be tough coming in here, with distractions all week, Christmas and everything. But guys fought. We got a 'W.' That's our biggest present. Coming into the locker room and seeing that hat and t-shirt, that's just one of your goals. That's something to be proud of."
After spending an impromptu overnight in Rochester, the Patriots plan to board their bus convoy at 11:30 Monday morning and head for the nearby airport. Their rearranged itinerary should have the team's travel party back at snowy Gillette Stadium by mid-afternoon.
The alterations will deprive the Patriots of the full slate of their typical Monday of work, which entails in-depth film breakdown of the game, team meetings, and medical treatment for players who may need it. While there will still be time for some of those activities, the layover certainly reduces the amount of time the players and coaching staff are able to dedicate to them.
Players are expected to have their normal Tuesday off, while their coaches begin implementing the game plan for next Sunday's regular season finale at Gillette Stadium versus the Miami Dolphins.
It may take longer than usual for the Patriots to get back to New England. But they are able to rest easy in Rochester tonight, knowing once they do get home, they'll be there for the foreseeable future.