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.

Report: Belichick may be called to testify in Hernandez trial

Report: Belichick may be called to testify in Hernandez trial

Bill Belichick, identified as "William Belichick," has been added to the list of potential defense witnesses who could testify during the upcoming double-homicide trial of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, according to the Boston Herald.

Per the Herald, the new list of potential witnesses for the defense also includes Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey, who was Hernandez's teammate at the University of Florida. 

Belichick, McDaniels and Pouncey aren't guaranteed to testify, but their presence on the civilian witness list makes their presence in court a possibility. 

Hernandez's trial is scheduled to start next Wednesday. He's accused of killing Daniel Jorge Correia de Abreu and Safiro Furtado back in July of 2012. Hernandez is currently serving a life sentence after being convicted of the murder Odin Lloyd in 2013.

Patriots To-Do List: Figure out what’s up with Cyrus Jones

Patriots To-Do List: Figure out what’s up with Cyrus Jones

Personally, I would buy a crapload of stock in Cyrus Jones. In part because – after his nightmarish rookie season – stock can be bought on the cheap. But also because he’s too talented, too committed and too smart to suck like he did in 2016 when he handled punts like they were coated in uranium and never made a big contribution in the secondary.

(Listen above to hear Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry discuss Cyrus Jones on the Quick Slants podcast.)

Because of his disappointing year, Jones is an overlooked player on the Patriots roster, but he’s in a pivotal spot. With Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon approaching free agency, Malcolm Butler’s contract expiring after 2017, Pat Chung on the edge of 30 and a free agent after 2018 and the other corners being Justin Coleman, Eric Rowe and Jonathan Jones, Cyrus Jones is going to get his shot.

The reason I included safeties Harmon and Chung in the discussion is that when the Patriots go to six DBs, roles are less stringently defined. And because of Jones’ size (5-10, 200), powerful build and short-area quickness, he can be the kind of versatile player who covers inside against quicker slot receivers as well as being on the outside if necessary. Kind of like Chung can cover on the back end or drop down to cover tight ends.

The Patriots are confident that Jones will get it right. His teammates in the secondary are unanimous in saying he’s got all the talent he needs.  

PATRIOTS TO-DO LIST:

But as 2016 wore on, it was apparent that Jones was miserable and let his failures consume him. Jones muffed or fumbled five kicks in the 2016 season.
 
By the time the Patriots played the Ravens on a Monday night in December, he was so inside his own head that he stalked a bouncing punt he had no business being near (for the second time that game) and had it bounce off his foot setting up a Ravens touchdown. That night, Jones exited the Patriots locker room and made his way to the players parking lot before the field was even clear of equipment.

Jones either expected things to come as easily in the NFL as they did at Alabama and wasn’t prepared to deal with adversity. Or the mistakes he made caused him to wonder if he really was good enough to play in the league.

Either way, Cyrus Jones was all about Cyrus Jones in 2016. And his comments to the Baltimore Sun over the weekend were evidence that the world he’s concerned with ends at the end of his nose. 

"I honestly felt cursed," he said. "I reached a point where I didn't even want to play. I just didn't have it...What I did this year was not me," he said. "I don't care how anybody tries to sugarcoat it. Yes, I was a rookie. But I feel I should always be one of the best players on the field, no matter where I am.
 
"But honestly, it was hell for me," he said. "That's the only way I can describe it. I didn't feel I deserved to be part of anything that was happening with the team. I felt embarrassed that these people probably thought they wasted a pick on me."

The first thing Jones needs to do this offseason is get over himself. He can look one locker down and talk to Devin McCourty about getting crushed for shaky play in 2012, battling through it and then turning into a Pro Bowl-level safety. He can talk to fellow Alabama product Dont'a Hightower about Hightower’s being benched in the 2013 season against the Broncos and labeled a bust before flipping his season around and being the team’s best defender by the end of that year.

But he’s going to have to figure it out. Draft status means nothing to New England and, as it now stands, undrafted corner Jonathan Jones out of Auburn has more demonstrated value to the team that Cyrus Jones does. In two months, the Patriots are damn sure going to add more secondary players.

This offseason, Jones needs to check his ego, simplify his game and simply ban outside perceptions from fans, media or coaches from infect his on-field decision-making.

His conversation with the Sun didn’t really indicate he’s ready to do that. Asked about criticism, Jones said, “It pisses me off. You can say shut it out or don't listen, but I know people are talking, and it's negative. I'm not a dumb guy. It definitely affects me. What it should do is piss me off in a way that I want to shut them all up."

From the limited number of times I spoke with him and from his teammates regard for him, I can confirm Jones isn’t a dumb guy. That doesn’t necessarily make life easier though. In 2016, Cyrus Jones’ brain got in the way. The Patriots need him to shut that thing off in 2017.