FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – With one game left in the regular season, the New England Patriots are exactly where they want to be.
Gone are most of the questions that dogged the defending Super Bowl champions after a perplexing 2-2 start: Is Tom Brady finally fading at age 40? Why are there so many holes on defense? Is this the year for someone to challenge them in the AFC East?
They were fair questions a month into the season. But after the Patriots secured their NFL-record eighth straight 12-win season, it all seems silly heading into next week’s finale.
New England walked off the field Sunday following its 37-16 win over the Buffalo in an enviable position to capture home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
“We have a lot of goals and we’re trying to win every time out, and sometimes it looks great and sometimes it doesn’t,” Brady said. “12-3 with one game to go. 13-3 would be a pretty great year. We’ve just go to finish strong.”
The Patriots swept the season series with Buffalo for the 25th time, dating back to the inception of the series between the former AFL rivals in 1960. New England has won 31 of the last 36 games between the teams since Bill Belichick became coach.
The Bills (8-7) weren’t eliminated with Sunday’s loss, but were lamenting several plays – including a controversial overturned TD catch by Kelvin Benjamin in the closing seconds of the first half – as yet another missed opportunity.
Buffalo heads into next week’s finale at Miami still hoping to break its 17-year playoff drought. It is the longest active streak in North America’s four major professional sports.
“It is very disappointing,” Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor said. “We went into halftime and the score was even, and we cannot really spend too much thought on it at the end of the half. It was a horrible call. It is disappointing, but you have to move forward.”
Buffalo managed just 133 yards of offense in the final two quarters Sunday, while going 1 for 6 on third downs. It was also 0 for 4 in the red zone for the game.
The Bills have not scored an offensive touchdown in their last two games against New England. Buffalo managed a field goal in its 23-3 loss at home on Dec. 3.
“I guess they had good schemes, you know what I’m saying?” Benjamin said. “We’ve definitely got to do better when we get down in the red zone, punching it in. It’s just something we’ve got to work on moving forward as a team.”
In posting their 12th 12-win season the Patriots tied the Dallas Cowboys for the second-most such seasons since the 1970 merger. New England and Dallas trail only the San Francisco 49ers with 13.
Receiver Brandin Cooks (1,003 yards) surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the third straight season on Sunday. He joined tight end Rob Gronkowski (1,084), who passed that threshold last week at Pittsburgh. New England now has had two players reach 1,000 yards receiving in the same season six times. The Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs (Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce) are the only teams this season with two 1,000-yard receivers.
With his third-quarter sack on Brady, Buffalo DT Kyle Williams moved into sixth place on the Bills’ sacks list with 43 1/2 career sacks. It was his second sack this season on Brady.
Sunday was the first time the teams have met since Gronkowski’s late, gratuitous hit on Bills defensive back Tre’Davious White late in New England’s win at Buffalo.
White was lying face down on the sideline after intercepting Brady’s fourth-quarter pass attempt to Gronkowski. Gronk – upset about a flag not being called on White for pushing off – dived into him, driving his forearm into White’s back and head. Gronkowski was called for unnecessary roughness, but not kicked out of the game. He was later given a one-game suspension.
White said there was no lingering bitterness facing off against Gronk.
“It’s just a normal, normal player,” White said. “Normal, you know what I’m saying? I just go out there and play. I don’t think about who it is. I just go out there and play. When I’m on the field, I feel like I’m the best player out there so it don’t matter who it is.”