By Art Martone
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.