A further decorated team
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — On days like this, it’s not competition as much as performance art. The Patriots subtract all drama and settle for style points. It doesn’t make for compelling television, but that’s not Bill Belichick’s end game. Belichick plays to win and the New England Patriots win more than anybody.
For the fourth time in five weeks (thank you Packers, for the close one) the Patriots annihilated an opponent yesterday. While snow fell back home at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots put down the Bills, 34-3, at (makes you want to) Ralph Wilson Stadium, clinching the AFC East title for the eighth time in 10 seasons.
The victory gave the Patriots the best record in football and assured home field throughout the playoffs. It solidified their status as Super Bowl favorites and reinforced their reputation as bullies who’ll run you off the road, then make you eat a little snow.
Oh yes, snow. Four hundred miles from the belly of the nor’easter, the Patriots felt the impact of Boston’s blizzard. After clinching the division, they took a bus to Rochester and hunkered down for the night, hoping to fly home today.
“Are there Buffalo wings in Rochester?’’ Tom Brady asked.
Brady is playing in a higher league. He is 16-1 against the Bills. He has thrown an NFL-record 319 consecutive passes without an interception. The last time he was picked was Oct. 17 against the Ravens. Since playing Baltimore, Brady has 24 touchdown passes and no interceptions. He should win the Most Valuable Player award the same way Yaz did in 1967. Maybe Michael Vick gets one Cesar Tovar vote.
Brady is not alone in ball protection. The Patriots have played seven straight games without a turnover. Yesterday they had four fumble recoveries and three picks. Since the Cleveland game Nov. 7, their turnover differential is 22-0. They have nine turnovers in 15 games. The NFL record low is 13.
“All the guys who have handled the ball have done a good job taking care of it,’’ said Brady.
Do not underestimate how much it means to the Patriots to win the division. While we talk about 16-0 and home field and first-round byes, the Patriots allow themselves only one regular-season goal; they want to win the division. And they do it with the same regularity as the Red Auerbach Celtics.
“It never gets old,’’ said Brady. “And this is a good division.’’
“All year long we knew what we had in this locker room,’’ added Vince Wilfork, another guy who remembers the golden days.
Division champs T-shirts and hats were placed in all of the Patriots’ lockers.
“Is anybody wearing these shirts?’’ asked Brady.
Told that kid tight end Rob Gronkowski (four catches, two touchdowns) was first to don the cheesy garb, Brady said, “Gronk wears everything they give him here. You know, ‘If it’s free, I’ll take three.’ ’’
That’s the sportswriter’s mantra.
Scribes are going to be challenged this week. The Patriots are so good they have taken all the excitement out of the immediate future. Brady says he wants to play against Miami, and Logan Mankins tried to make the game feel important (“No matter how much we have wrapped up, you never want to embarrass yourself’’), but we know the truth.
The Patriots have absolutely zero on the line. Barring injury, the next meaningful play of the New England football season will be in three weeks — the second round of the playoffs at home on Jan. 15 or 16.
Sunday’s regular-season finale is the perfect time to give your tickets to the mailman. If you’ve got an annoying friend (a Kenny Bania type, perhaps) and you owe him a favor, cash in with the Dolphin ducats. You’ll be treating someone to a Patriots game and it won’t cost you a moment of angst or regret. School is out until mid-January.
This means three more weeks of gum-flapping on sports radio and the Internet. Prepare thyself for a three-part series on Danny Woodhead (“Woody, the early years’’), dissection of ever-trendy coin-toss deferrals, and stylists’ analysis of Brady’s hair extensions, a.k.a. “the one-man weave.’’
The theme this week will be the popular “rest or rust’’ question. You can expect to see several thousand replays of the implosion of Wes Welker’s knee in the meaningless game at Houston last January. Belichick is going to be asked to wax philosophic on how to approach Miami. But it’s not to his advantage to acknowledge the obvious. He will tell us that this is a week like any other.
Got to get ready for the Dolphins.
All division games are important.
Blah, blah, blah.
It is the Patriot way. And it works.
Still, there’s no disguising the reality. Apart from weather, Sunday’s romp with the Dolphins is going to feel like the eighth inning of Red Sox vs. Orioles in Fort Myers in March. The Patriots are so good they’ve taken away our thrills for the next three weeks.
Maybe Bill can bring back Doug Flutie for a drop-kick conversion.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.