Patriots

Patriots rout Bills, 34-3, clinch top seed in playoffs

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Patriots rout Bills, 34-3, clinch top seed in playoffs

By Art Martone
CSNNE.com

Cancel those January travel plans. The road to the Super Bowl, at least on the AFC side, is going through Foxboro.

The Patriots clinched the AFC East title, and top overall seed in the AFC playoffs, with a 34-3 dismantling of the Bills Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park. It lifted their record to 13-2 overall and, by virtue of the top seed, guarantees them home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.

For the record, it's the eighth division championship for the Patriots in the last 10 years (and the 13th overall in the franchise's 51-year history), and the third time they've earned top seed. The others: 2003 (they won one of their three Super Bowls that year) and 2007 (and that year, of course, they didn't).

"It never gets old, I'll tell you that," said Tom Brady. "We never gettired of winning."

Buffalo had won four of its six previous games -- and should have won five of six, considering Steve Johnson's unforced drop of a game-winning catch in the end zone in the Bills' overtime loss to Pittsburgh -- but on Sunday the Pats made them look worthy of their 4-11 record. New England forced seven turnovers, and scored touchdowns after the first three; held the Bills when it counted most (Buffalo was only 4-of-13 on combined third- and fourth-down attempts), and ran off 34 consecutive points after Buffalo kicked a field goal on the game's opening possession.

"Turnovers were really the story for us offensively," said Brady. "We were fortunate to get quite a few short fields today, and we took advantage of them when we did. "

The Bills did look good enough after taking the opening kickoff, gaining 64 yards on 7 rushes before stalling in the red zone and settling for a 26-yard Ryan Lindell field goal. They even held that 3-0 lead for a bit, forcing the Pats to punt the first time they had the ball.

But it was all downhill -- or uphill, if you're of a Patriots persuasion -- from there:

NEW ENGLAND'S SECOND POSSESSION: 29-yard touchdown run by Danny Woodhead, capping a short, 48-yard drive. Woodhead was sprung by an efficient block from tight end Rob Gronkowski.

NEW ENGLAND'S THIRD POSSESSION: 8-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Gronkowski, who put the Pats in position with an athletic back-shoulder catch on a 23-yard play that put the ball at the 11. The drive was set up by a Jerod Mayo recovery of a fumble that was forced by Gary Guyton.

NEW ENGLAND'S FOURTH POSSESSION: A 34-yard Shayne Graham field goal after consecutive drops of catchable Brady passes by Wes Welker in the red zone shortcircuited the drive.

NEW ENGLAND'S FIFTH POSSESSION: A 4-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Alge Crumpler after an interception by Patrick Chung gave the Pats the ball on the Buffalo 27.

That sent the Pats into the half with a 24-3 lead, and the rest was all academic. New England added a third-quarter touchdown on a second Brady-to-Gronkowski TD pass, this one of eight yards, and a fourth-quarter field goal by Graham of 26 yards.

When it was over, the Pats were once again handed the hats and T-shirts representing a division championship.

"This is a tough division. It's a good division," said Brady."And to come out victorious, obviously everyone's very proud of it."

Also academic -- now -- is next Sunday's regular-season finale against Miami, which no doubt will spark a week's worth of questions as to how the Patriots will play it. It's all that's left to talk about, considering that everything worth earning has been earned.

Including the entire month of January in Foxboro.

Art Martone can be reached at amartone@comcastsportsnet.com.

Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady is on pace for 5,224 yards passing in 2017, just a shade under his total from his career-high in 2011. He's on track to have 34 touchdowns and just five picks. Barring a continued run of ridiculous efficiency from Kansas City's Alex Smith, those numbers would be MVP-caliber in all likelihood.

But Brady's not thrilled with the way he's played of late. What gives? 

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In his past two games, he hasn't thrown the football as consistently as he would have liked. After starting the season with a 10-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio, he's 3-to-2 in the last couple of weeks. His accuracy has been at times pinpoint (as it was on his 42-yard completion to Brandin Cooks to help set up a Rob Gronkowski score against the Jets), but it has also been uncharacteristically erratic.

He was picked deep down the middle of the field by Buster Skrine last week, but the more concerning throw may have been the quick out-route to Gronkowski that Skrine dropped for what should have been an easy interception. Brady missed Phillip Dorsett on what looked like it could have been a long touchdown with Dorsett running free behind the defense. He threw behind Chris Hogan twice in the game, one of which opened up Hogan to a rib-shot that landed him on the injury report this week.

Against the Jets, Brady was not sacked and he was hit only four times -- a light day for him compared to other weeks this season when he's been battered. Yet he still completed just under 53 percent of his passes for 257 yards and a season-low 6.76 yards per attempt. 

"Well, I've got to hit the open . . . If the throws are there I've got to be able to make them," he said on Friday. "It's disappointing when I don't. To me, it just comes back to technique and fundamentals and making sure everything is working and that's the consistent daily thing that you're working on. I'm always working on my accuracy.

"I wish I hit them all. I'm capable of hitting them all and I need to be able to do that. I said last week that some of these games wouldn't be as close if I was playing better in the red area. I think some of those missed opportunities in the pass game with me hitting guys would really help our team. Hopefully, I can do a better job for this team."

Brady is no longer listed on the Patriots injury report, but he dealt with a left shoulder injury against both the Bucs and the Jets, and it's worth wondering if that somehow impacted how his passes traveled in those games. Balance is key in Brady's world, and even though he can make flat-footed throws look easy, perhaps an injury to his front side limited his ability to place the ball where he wanted. 

Keeping Brady upright could go a long way in helping the 40-year-old regain his form from Weeks 2-4 when he didn't dip below a 104 quarterback rating. Bill Belichick said earlier this week that part of the reason the Jets pass-rush wasn't quite as effective as others they'd faced this year was his team's ability to run the ball. Productive rushing attempts on first and second down mean manageable third downs, which mean shorter pass attempts. Those of course, in theory, lead to less time standing in the pocket and a healthier quarterback.

"It's great," Brady said of his team's recent surge running the football. "I mean, to be able to run the ball consistently in the NFL is important for every offense. It does take a lot of . . . I wouldn't say pressure, it's just production. If 400 yards of offense is what you're looking for and you can get 150 from your running game, the 250 has got to come in the passing game. If you're getting 50 yards in the rushing game then it means you've got to throw for more.

"I don't think it's pressure it's just overall you're going to get production in different areas and the backs are a big part of our offense and handing the ball off to them is an easy way for us to gain yards if we're all coordinated and doing the right thing. But those guys are running hard. The line is doing a great job up front finishing blocks and so forth."

Against the Falcons and their talented -- though underperforming -- offense this weekend, the running game could be key. First, it could help the Patriots defense by controlling possession and keeping Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman off the field. Next are the obvious advantages for the signal-caller who could use a stress-free day in the pocket to help him solve his recent accuracy issues. 

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