FOXBOROUGH – There were a couple of different scenarios under which the Patriots could clinch a first-round postseason bye on Sunday, but coach Bill Belichick stressed only one to his players: win.
Simple, direct, and to-the-point (which is really the only way Belichick knows): beating the Bills would take all of those “ifs” and “ors” out of the equation, and give New England a much-needed week of rest during wild-card weekend.
With a fourth-quarter touchdown and a field goal set up by long LeGarrette Blount kickoff returns (where have those been all season?) and a third TD provided by Blount on a late carry, the Patriots sewed up the No. 2 seed in the AFC with a 34-20 win over Buffalo at rain-soaked Gillette Stadium, remarkably their 12th victory in what easily could have become a washout season given all of the injuries and on- and off-field drama that began in the offseason.
But as big a role as Blount’s first long return, which was 83-yards, played in New England taking what would be an insurmountable lead, the home team also got a gift from embattled Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus on the possession.
With Stephen Gostkowski lined up for a chip-shot field goal that would have given the Patriots a 19-10 lead had he converted, Dareus was flagged for an obvious encroachment.
The Patriots got the ball at the 5 and a fresh set of downs, and Tom Brady (14 for 24 for 122 yards, a TD and an INT) hit Shane Vereen with a screen pass to the left that Vereen took in for the touchdown. They went for 2, and though Brady had to backpedal a bit because of pressure, he found a wide-open Julian Edelman for the conversion.
Dareus’s mistake ended up being a 5-point swing in New England’s favor. The former first-round pick started the Bills’ first 14 games, but then was benched for the first quarter in Week 16 against Miami for being late to team meetings. The day after his benching, he was late again, leading to him being benched for the first half of Sunday’s game.
As costly as the Dareus’s error was for Buffalo, which finished its first season under head coach Doug Marrone at 6-10, Blount was not to be denied.
Acquired on draft weekend from the Buccaneers in exchange for Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick, his arrival was met with little fanfare: after a 1,000-yard season in Tampa Bay as an undrafted rookie in 2010, he was supplanted by Doug Martin in 2012 and deemed expendable.
But as Vereen missed half the season with injuries, Brandon Bolden was injured and ineffective, and Stevan Ridley struggled with fumbles, Blount was steady-if-not-spectacular all season, the only running back to play in all 16 games.
Against the Bills, he went over 100 yards rushing early in the second quarter, and finished with 24 carries for 189 yards and two touchdowns, one in the second quarter and the second in the fourth, both of them of more than 30 yards.
The Oregon product added 145 yards on two kickoff returns.
As Blount rumbled to his big day, the Patriots’ defense did its job against the Bills, who started Thad Lewis at quarterback in place of injured rookie E.J. Manuel.
Though Lewis connected on a couple of long passes, he also had some moments of indecision that led to costly sacks.
New England did allow running back C.J. Spiller to gain 105 yards rushing.