FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Last week, a win in Cincinnati got the Patriots into the playoffs. Buffalo made their way into the postseason as well last weekend. With the Bills nipping at New England's heels in the battle for the AFC East crown, the two teams met for a rare Saturday engagement at Gillette Stadium.
Were the Patriots to emerge victorious in this latest meeting between the longtime rivals, they'd lock up the team's 11th consecutive AFC East title and maintain their position as the No. 2 playoff seed in the American Football Conference with a week to go in the regular season.
"It's playoff football. It was a playoff [type of] game," Pro Bowl CB Stephon Gilmore maintained afterward. "We knew it was going to be tough. A lot of guys stepped up. It wasn't easy, but we stuck together and were able to come out with a win.
"We did it on offense, defense, and special teams. It was a great win, great to win the division."
On the game's opening drive, the Patriots were moving the ball well until RB Rex Burkhead lost a fumble. He was rumbling into Bills territory on a screen play when, from behind, Buffalo safety Jordan Poyer executed a textbook punch-out. The loose ball was then recovered by fellow safety Micah Hyde and taken to the NE 31-yard line.
New England's defense put the clamps down, however, and eventually allowed just three points to Buffalo on that short-field possession. Bills kicker Stephen Hauschka drilled a 35-yarder to open the scoring.
On the ensuing Patriots drive, QB Tom Brady and the offense looked to its backs and tight ends for help. RB Sony Michel gobbled up yards on the ground, while TE Benjamin Watson chipped in with a couple of clutch catches to help the Patriots move into the Bills' red zone. From there, Brady connected with TE Matt LaCosse for an 8-yard scoring pass – Brady's 76th different receiver to catch a TD from him in his 20-year career.
When that was pointed out to LaCosse later, the tight end couldn't contain his glee in the post-game Patriots locker room.
"First touchdown as a Patriots, first touchdown from Tom Brady… It was pretty cool," he grinned.
Kicker Nick Folk added the extra point to give New England its first lead of the night, 7-3, with about two minutes left in the first quarter.
After forcing a Buffalo punt, which the Bills downed at New England's 1-yard line, the Patriots went more to the air, with big-gain receptions by WRs Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu, and rookie N'Keal Harry. During the drive, though, RT Marcus Cannon suffered a left ankle injury and had to be replaced for the remainder of the game by Marshall Newhouse.
Facing 4th-and-1 from the Bills' 27, Brady handed off to Michel, who managed to squeak over the yard to gain and keep the drive going. Folk later extended the lead with a 36-yard boot at the 5:04 mark of the second quarter.
The two teams traded punts toward the end of the half, before New England reclaimed the ball at midfield with just over a minute to go. However, Harry was stuffed on another 4th-and-1 at the Bills' 40, turning the ball over on downs with time left on the play clock. Bills QB Josh Allen made a tremendous throw to TE Dawson Knox down to the Patriots' 1 with eight seconds remaining.
Two plays later, Allen, rolling to his right, tossed an easy TD to tackle-eligible Dion Dawkins, who'd gotten free on the left side of the end zone. That play, with the successful Hauschka extra point, knotted the halftime score at 10.
"This season," special teams co-captain and Pro Bowler Matthew Slater remarked later, "there's been some adversity we've had to deal with, but we found a way to respond to it. Proud of these guys, proud to be part of this group."
At the start of the third quarter, New England's defense forced another Bojorquez punt, which gave the Patriots' offense the ball at their own 23. Brady found an open Burkhead down the right sideline along the Patriots bench for a big gain. Then, an apparent Watson touchdown catch-and-run was called back by an offensive pass interference penalty on the play by Edelman. New England settled for three points when Folk hammered home a 51-yarder.
Edelman, however, appeared to be shaken up on the PI infraction. He went for examination in the team's pop-up medical tent, and later was escorted to the locker room with what the team described as a head injury.
Meantime, Buffalo took the lead right back when Allen launched a deep throw that found WR John Brown in stride for a 53-yard touchdown. Brown had gotten behind the Patriots' secondary and outraced the chasing defenders to the end zone.
"They made some plays," Gilmore acknowledged, "but in the end, it's about who makes the last play."
By the end of the third, the Bills held a 17-13 advantage, but the Patriots offense was threatening. A Burkhead screen pass took the ball into Buffalo's red zone, yet Folk again had to provide the scoring with a 20-yard field goal. New England still trailed, but only by a point, 17-16.
Edelman managed to return to action with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter and made an immediate impact. Brady found him down the hash marks for a 30-yard gain into Bills terrain.
"I was just trying to do my job – go out there and make a play," he told reporters gathered around his locker afterward.
"Anytime Julian's on the field, it's a different ball game," added LaCosse. "He's a great receiver. Anytime he's in the huddle, he's a dangerous guy. We love having him out there."
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels then dialed up several running plays with Michel, Burkhead, even Brady on a QB sneak to get down inside the Bills' 5-yard line.
On 1st-and-goal from the 1, Burkhead broke a tackle, bounced to the outside, and waltzed into the end zone. On the two-point conversion, Brady saw Edelman running a shallow cross just over the goal line and fired a pass to him. The veteran pass catcher hung on and the Patriots went back up by a touchdown's margin, 24-17, with under five minutes left in the fourth.
Allen and the Bills had another crack at it, though, and found themselves inside New England's 10-yard line at the two-minute warning. A shared sack by LB Dont'a Hightower and DL Adam Butler dropped Allen back to the 15, and on 4th-and-goal from there, Allen's desperation heave into the end zone was knocked down incomplete. Brady and the O ran out the remaining minute of clock to clinch their 11th straight AFC East title.
"It means a lot," admitted Edelman. "It's one of the first goals that you set early in the spring when you're forming your team. You want to go out and win your division. It was good to go out here and get one.
"A lot of guys played well. It was good to have that in a game like this. It was like a playoff game. Playing against a very good opponent, you've got to tip your hat to them. To see our guys, how we prepared and how we were able to have good practices and string them together and see it translate to the game – I'm sure there's a bunch of stuff we didn't do well, but we did enough things well to win the AFC East."
"You never take for granted the position we're in," Slater continued. "We've had a lot of good fortune over the years. Feels good to get the win tonight."
As much as they savored winning the East this Saturday, several players were already focusing on finishing their regular season job next weekend. Indeed, New England can secure a first-round playoff bye as at least the No. 2 seed by beating the Miami Dolphins, another AFC East foe, next Sunday here in Foxborough.
"We've got a lot more football left to be played," Burkhead observed. "We're nowhere where we want to be yet or where we need to be, but I feel like, as long as we continue to stack those and get better every single day, we'll put ourselves in a good position."
"We played well tonight," LaCosse declared, "but there's still a lot of things we can do to get better. We have a week to practice and get ready for Miami."
"It's big. It's another playoff game," Gilmore asserted. "We win next week, we get the first-round bye. You don't need more motivation than that."
The Patriots claimed the AFC East Division title for the 11th consecutive season with their victory over the Buffalo Bills on Saturday, December 21, 2019.