Pats clinch home-field advantage with 49-21 rout of Bills

Pats clinch home-field advantage with 49-21 rout of Bills
January 1, 2012, 9:03 pm
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FOXBORO -- The playoffs loom, and the Patriots who showed up for the last three quarters Sunday afternoon are going to be a handful for anyone.
As long as the ones who played the first quarter don't mess things up too badly.
They didn't on Sunday . . . try as they might. The Pats were overwhelmed by the Buffalo Bills in the opening 15 minutes, getting outgained 185 yards to 5 and falling behind 21-0.
Then those Patriots left the stage. And their replacements? They had the Gillette Stadium faithful dreaming of Lombardi Trophies.
The defense not only shut out the Bills the rest of the way, but it set up three touchdowns -- two by the offense, and one it scored itself -- with interceptions. The offense scored points on seven of eight possessions until the take-a-knee ending. It all added up to a 49-0 New England advantage over the last three quarters en route to a 49-21 victory that enabled the Pats, who finished the regular season at 13-3, to clinch the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
By the end of the game, the Patriots' horrific start was so far in the rear-view mirror as to be invisibe. Still, the first quarter was a New England disaster that trumped even last week's opening stumble against the Dolphins (when they fell behind 17-0 before rallying to win).
After the Bills kept possession with a fake punt on a fourth-and-one on their own 43, they proceeded to blow holes in the New England defense:
A 47-yard pass interference penalty against Antwaun Molden put the ball on the Buffalo 4, and Tashard Choice scored on a four-yard run. Eight plays, 80 yards, 7-0 Buffalo.
After another fourth-down conversion -- this one on a nine-yard pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Stevie Johnson on fourth-and-four from the New England 31 -- Fitzpatrick hooked up with Johnson for an 18-yard TD. Ten plays, 70 yards, 14-0 Buffalo.
On their next drive, the Bills ran off five straight plays of 14, 14, 21, 12 and 15 yards, the last a touchdown pass from Fitzpatrick to C.J. Spiller. Six plays, 82 yards, 21-0 Buffalo.
"Give the players credit for turning that around," said coach Bill Belichick. "They made plays after falling behind 21-0; they played good."
At this point, the Pats had generated minus-six yards of offense. But it was here that Tom Brady and company proceeded to get it in gear.
"We couldn't do anything offensively at the beginning," said Belichick. "But we finally got it going, made a few plays. That's what it's all about."
BenJarvus Green-Ellis scored on a one-yard run with 12:01 to play in the half, capping a 9-play, 77-yard drive that cut Buffalo's lead to 21-7. Then they went 81 yards in 7 plays, with Aaron Hernandez taking advantage of blown Buffalo coverage to race 39 yards with a Brady pass for a TD that made it 21-14.
"There's no panic," said Brady. "It's really a matter of execution and we started executing better and put points on the board."
The Patriots resumed firing after taking the second-half kickoff. They moved from their 22 to the Buffalo 35 before stalling, and Stephen Gostkowski's 47-yard field goal cut the Bills lead to 21-17.
A 53-yard pass-and-run from Brady to Green-Ellis on New England's next possession set up the Pats at the Buffalo 20. A 15-yard pass from Brady to Wes Welker on a third-and-six from the 16 put the ball on the 1, but the Bills' defense held and Gostkowski's chip-shot 20-yard field goal made it 21-20.
By now, the defense had stopped allowing points. Then it went one step better: It began making plays.
The first was by Sterling Moore, who intercepted a Fitzpatrick pass at the Buffalo 30 and returned it five yards to the 25. It took Brady six plays to cash in, as he found Rob Gronkowski behind the Buffalo defense with a 17-yard scoring pass that gave New England its first lead of the day. A successful two-point conversion run by Danny Woodhead put the Pats in front, 28-21.
Then it was Devin McCourty's turn, choking off a Buffalo drive with an interception at the New England 15 that he returned 38 yards to the Buffalo 47. Brady and Aaron Hernandez hooked up on a 44-yard pass that pushed the ball to the 3, and Green-Ellis ran it in from there to make it 35-21.
The Pats ended whatever suspense was left with a 14-play, 88-yard drive that consumed nearly 7 12 minutes of the fourth quarter, capped by a seven-yard Brady-to-Gostkowski TD pass. Moore put the icing on the cake with his second interception, which he returned 21 yards for a touchdown and the 49-21 final.
"I'd like to see what it's like when we put together 60 minutes of football," said Brady. "Today it was 45. It's better than last week against the Dolphins, when it was 30.
"Maybe we're trending toward that."
The rest of the league better hope not.