FOXBOROUGH – If the Patriots coveted anything as a team this Christmas, it would be a 10th consecutive AFC East title and yet another first-round playoff bye.
It's unusual for this team under head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady not to have any postseason assurances sewn up by this time. The division crown eluded New England the past two weeks, when they dropped close decisions on the road to Miami and Pittsburgh. At Gillette this day before Christmas Eve, the Patriots could ensure they'd extend their home-for-the-holidays schedule at least another week if they could beat the Buffalo Bills.
"This one feels a little different," safety Duron Harmon conceded, "because we had an opportunity, obviously, these past two weeks, but it just shows the resilience in this group, not to fold under pressure. Just continue to come to work each and every day, and when things don't go your way, never quit. Just keep fighting until it does."
Meanwhile, the club would need some help from the Philadelphia Eagles, who were hosting the Houston Texans at the same time. Houston entered the day in the No. 2 AFC playoff spot, but a loss by the Texans, coupled with a Patriots win over the Bills, would vault New England back in the two-seed.
"We didn't take care of business the last two weeks," cornerback Stephon Gilmore acknowledged later, "but… It means a lot. It's a blessing. Second one [for me]. Took a lot of hard work. It's not easy."
The Bills and Patriots traded punts on their first few series, but New England finally broke the scoreless tie thanks to a 6-play, 55-yard drive that saw rookie rusher Sony Michel knife through the middle of the Bills defense several times. He finished it off with a four-yard plunge over the goal line and finished the game with 116 yards on the ground.
"It's not really about me," Michel demurred afterward. "It's awesome that we can rush for a lot of yards, whether it's me, James [White], Rex [Burkhead], even CP [Cordarrelle Patterson] running the ball. As long as we create positive plays…"
It looked as if the Patriots were marching again on their next possession when Burkhead was stripped of the ball and the Bills' defense recovered near midfield. However, Buffalo couldn't capitalize, as kicker Stephen Hauschka clanked his 43-yard effort off the crossbar.
"That's one of the things we pride ourselves on is points," observed defensive end Trey Flowers. "Just be able, whatever position we get caught in, as long as we keep points off the board, we're that much closer to winning the game."
New England's ground game continued to be effective, whether it was Michel, Patterson taking jet sweeps for big gains, or White rambling 27 yards for the second Patriots touchdown of the afternoon.
"I thought the offensive line played really well, the running backs ran the ball well," noted wide receiver Chris Hogan, "[wide receiver] Julian [Edelman] played awesome. Defense got a lot of stops, got good plays out of the kicking game. That's what we ask for, all three phases playing well."
Undrafted rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson continues to mature as a regular contributor in the secondary. He got the ball back for New England on the next play from scrimmage when he intercepted Bills rookie QB Josh Allen near midfield.
But this being the season of giving, the Patriots played generous hosts when Brady gave the ball right back a couple plays later. He threw an INT of his own down in Bills territory.
Despite that, the Patriots went to their halftime locker room with a 14-0 lead against a Bills team that looked like it thought this was Week 17, rather than 16. Philly, meanwhile, trailed the Texans 16-13 at their intermission.
At the very start of the second half, a Brady pass went directly through the hands of TE Rob Gronkowski and into those Bills safety Jordan Poyer just outside New England's red zone. The turnover resulted in Buffalo's first points of the game, a 35-yard field goal by Hauschka.
Clinging to a 14-6 lead, the Patriots faced a 4th-and-4 from the Buffalo 32-yard line and decided to go for it. Brady hit Edelman on a slant that easily picked up the necessary yardage. But as Edelman was being tackled by two Bills defenders, he managed to keep his balanced, rolled over the backs of the two Buffalo players, then bounced up and raced to the end zone for a touchdown. Around the same time in Philadelphia, the Eagles managed to knot the score at 16 with Houston.
Immediately thereafter, Allen drove Buffalo down inside the New England 5-yard line, and almost simultaneously, the Eagles took the lead on a long touchdown. Heading into the fourth quarter, the Patriots had jumped back up into the No. 2 slot in the AFC.
A short time later, both the Patriots and Eagles added to their leads with field goals.
CB Jason McCourty's fantastic sideline interception of Allen with about four minutes left in the game all but sealed the historic victory for the Patriots. New England became the first team in NFL history to qualify for the playoffs for 10 consecutive seasons.
"The old man can still do a little bit of something," McCourty joked with reporters post-game. "Happy to be able to make a play for our defense at a crucial point in the game."
Briefly after dispatching the Bills, it looked like the Patriots would slide back and remain stuck as the No. 3 seed, because Houston mounted a fierce comeback to take a 1-point lead. However, Eagles QB Nick Foles had enough time to lead his team into field goal range to beat the Texans… a gift to New England.
Patriots players were glued to TV screens or their phones keeping updated on the proceedings, and when Philly finally won, a roar went up in the Patriots locker room.
"Shout-out to Nick Foles!" beamed Harmon. "Especially on that two-minute drive. It takes guts. He did that against a really good team, a Texans defense that's as good as anybody out there.
"We'll definitely take it. We knew what that game meant for us, but if we didn't take care of what we did today, it wouldn't matter at all. It was good to be able to care of what we had and then just be a fan of the game for a little bit."
If there was any disappointment for the Patriots Sunday, it was the potential loss of the versatile Patterson, who left the game early in the third quarter with a knee injury. He told reporters later that he felt okay, but after losing pass catcher Josh Gordon this past week to an NFL suspension, the Patriots receiving corps is atrophying.
For the time being, however, New England is back in familiar position and the fate of its playoff seeding is now firmly in the Patriots' own hands. Just beat the Jets next week and they can take the first weekend of January off before hosting a to-be-determined opponent at Gillette the week after that.
"It means a lot to this program, to these players, these coaches," Michel said of wrapping up the East. "We've worked so hard and have so much more work to do. This is just a starting point."
"Definitely," echoed McCourty. "Division opponent next week, a Jets team that's going to be ready to end some things for us. I'll enjoy this. Christmas is coming up, enjoy a little time with the family, then get right back to business."
"The main thing for us," Harmon concluded, "is just to win football games right now. We have to make sure we're playing our best football next week and the week after, whenever we've got to play. Thank you to Nick Foles [and the Eagles] for getting the win, but I'll take this team against anybody. We know how good we are, how good we can be. We just have to worry about ourselves."