FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - By the time the Patriots took to the soggy and soon-to-be-puddling turf of Gillette Stadium late Sunday afternoon, they knew the circumstances. They knew the Bengals had beaten the Ravens. They knew the Colts had beaten the Jaguars. So they knew that in order to have next weekend off, they needed to beat the Bills.
And as they have all season, the Patriots found a way to do what was necessary.
The quest required them to win seven games by a touchdown or less, it required five wins by way of fourth-quarter comebacks, and it required surviving a variety of serious injuries on both sides of scrimmage after an offseason that was plenty tumultuous in and of itself.
The margin for error was so slim that twice late in the year the Pats struggled to beat a team that would fire its coach within the next three weeks. Yet they managed to emerge from those games victorious, and by beating the Bills by a score of 34-20 behind the bulldozing LeGarrette Blount, managed to finish 12-4, managed to reach the divisional round for the fourth straight season and managed to confirm themselves as threats to win the conference. Again.
"I'm happy for them. They definitely earned it," said Patriots Coach Bill Belichick. "Nobody gave them anything. They had to go out and earn it, won 12 games — and a lot of them were very tough and competitive and came down to the wire. This team earned it.
"I'm happy for them — but at the same time this isn't our only goal for the season. We need to play our best football going forward, and we'll have a big challenge ahead of us in a couple weeks."
As the No. 2 seed, the Patriots know that challenge will not come from the Chargers, who escaped in overtime Sunday to beat the Chiefs and claim the AFC's final berth. But depending how things play out, it could be No. 3 Cincinnati, No. 4 Indianapolis or No. 5 Kansas City coming to Gillette Stadium, where New England finished the season 8-0.
"It's good to advance to the second round of the playoffs," said quarterback Tom Brady. "Who knows who we're going to play, but we're going to have to play good. We've put together a great season, but it doesn't matter much now. We'll see what we're made of here in a couple weeks.
The Patriots entered the afternoon with just nine rushes of at least 20 yards for the entire season, but they leaned heavily on the run game early as the rain poured down, and broke a couple for big gains.
With the game tied at 3 after teams traded field goals on their opening possessions, Stevan Ridley romped up the gut for a 29-yard gain that set up a 35-yard Stephen Gostkowski boot, then on New England's subsequent series Blount rumbled to the end zone from 36 yards out after a couple of bowling-ball carries earlier on the drive.
With that, the Patriots had a 13-3 lead and Blount had a 101 yards rushing — with 12:22 still to play before halftime.
"Clearly the best player on the field," Belichick said. "He had a tremendous day. He carried the team on his back most of the day."
When New England did throw the ball, again in deference to the wet conditions that caused the Patriots to fumble three times in the first half (harmlessly, in the end, as they recovered all three), they tended to do so with shorter, zippier passes. Julian Edelman did yeoman's work underneath to surpass the season-long 100-catch and 1,000-yard plateaus with seven grabs before the end of the second quarter, and the Patriots made effective use of the screen game to march 78 yards and tack on another Gostkowski field goal just before the half — his franchise-record 37th of the year — and enter intermission with a 16-3 lead.
By the time the Patriots headed to the locker room, Denver had opened a 31-0 lead in Oakland, so the Patriots' hopes of securing home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs were all but officially dashed — and thus New England's immediate mission for the third quarter became burying the Bills quickly enough to allow the Pats to pull their starters.
That didn't happen, as the Patriots' first two third-quarter possessions produced more Brady punts (one) than points (zero), and the Bills put together a pair of 80-yard scoring drives. But each time Buffalo closed to within a score of the lead, Blount continued his enormous afternoon by tilting the field on the ensuing kickoff.
Both times taking the ball out of his own end zone, he went 83 yards with the first, positioning his team for a 5-yard Brady-to-Shane Vereen scoring strike, onto which was tacked a two-point conversion to Edelman. Then he scampered 62 yards on the second, setting up the 35-yard field goal that gave Gostkowski the club record for points in a season (157), and pushed the Patriots' lead back up to 27-17.
Though playing for nothing, the Bills didn't quit, and closed to within seven thanks to a field goal with less than four minutes to go. But, again, Blount would let it get no closer. After Nate Ebner covered an onside kick, the burly back bulled his way to gains of 10 and 35 yards, landing in the end zone with the latter to bump his total yardage to 334 yards for the day, and all but officially earn the Patriots a week off.
As a salute for that effort, Belichick substituted for Blount with the Patriots kneeling on the ball to kill the clock, and as the crowd cheered him, the coach met the back for a fairly lengthy embrace on the sideline.
When the Patriots traded Olympic sprinter Jeff Demps for him on draft day, and exiled him from Tampa Bay — at the suggestion of Aqib Talib, who Belichick called the team's "assistant pro personnel director" on Sunday, saying the cornerback vouched for his former Buccaneer teammate — there weren't many who foresaw that scenario unfolding after the season finale. Then again, a lot has certainly changed since then.
Though not the Patriots' place among the elite of the AFC.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.