Ever since the Patriots’ shocking November 7 loss to the lowly Cleveland Browns, the Patriots have learned its lesson in not playing down to its competition. They haven’t experienced that kind of humiliation since then.
Coming into this weekend, Bill Belichick knew the Buffalo Bills ranked dead last in the NFL is defending the run. So with two little guys in BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead having breakout years running the ball, you knew at least one of the two would have a big game on the ground Sunday afternoon in Buffalo against a team that just can’t seem to get out of its own way (let alone the cellar of the AFC East).
Turns out, Green-Ellis and Woodhead were both the main stars of New England’s 34-3 blowout win over the Bills, which gave them the 2010 AFC East championship once again, home-field advantage throughout the playoffs next month as the #1 seed in the AFC, and a first-round bye. The other star was rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski, a native of nearby Amherst, New York, who caught two big touchdown receptions.
The Pats are now 13-2, three games ahead of the second place New York Jets (10-5), who lost to Chicago on Sunday. The Pats’ division title is their eighth since the 2001 season, when Tom Brady took over for Drew Bledsoe under center. But believe it or not, this is only the third time in franchise history the Patriots have earned the #1 seed for the NFL postseason, and all of those earned honors have occurred within the last seven years (2003, 2007 and now 2010). Simply amazing.
Speaking of which, during the course of the game, which was never really a contest even though the team was short-handed—no TE Aaron Hernandez, for example—Brady broke former Cleveland Browns QB Bernie Kosar’s 20-year-old record of 308 pass attempts without throwing an interception. The Brady record now stands at 319 pass attempts (and counting).
It’s rare that New England’s rushing yards outnumber the total passing yards (217 rushing to 140 passing today), but being the team player Brady is, he knew the passing game wasn’t going to be the main line of attack. Still, those 217 yards rushing were the most since an astonishing 277 against the Raiders on December 14, 2008.
Green-Ellis led the way with 104 yards rushing on 19 attempts, while Woodhead had 93 on just 13 carries. The Pats simply ran the ball until Buffalo stopped them. They never did. That is in large part due to outstanding blocking by the offensive line and the tight ends (Gronkowski and veteran Alge Crumpler, who was rewarded with a rare TD catch of his own in this game).
Brady even had 13 rushing yards while escaping a (weak) Buffalo pass rush that didn’t come close to knocking the Pats quarterback off his game. Only a few dropped passes by the usually reliable Wes Welker, one or two by Gronkowski, and a penalty on Logan Mankins that took away a 40+ yard pass play kept Brady’s passing yards down to a season-low of 140 yards.
Brady threw three TDs (adding to his NFL lead that stands at 34), and got the big scores when the opportunities presented themselves. And with the steadily improving Pats defense forcing a season-high seven turnovers—Devin McCourty and co. forced four fumbles while Patrick Chung and two others picked off young Buffalo QB Ryan Fitzpatrick three times—he certainly did that. In other words, Brady did exactly what he needed to do to win games, and nothing more—no stat padding.
With nothing to play for playoffs-wise next week at home versus the Miami Dolphins for the regular season finale, it’s likely main starters like Brady, Welker, Green-Ellis and Woodhead won’t see much action. At least, I hope to not see a lot of starters play much more than a half of football, since everyone remembers the devastating knee injury Wes Welker suffered in New England’s final game of 2009.
If key players not playing much means a weapon like Green-Ellis won’t get the 72 yards he needs to reach the coveted milestone of 1,000 rushing yards, so be it. Just getting into the 900s for him is an accomplishment in itself to be proud of.
True, injuries can happen at any time, but it’s best to rest your main guns when you can, rather than risk losing any number of them for games that actually mean something. And the way things are going now for the Patriots, there could be a whole lot of meaningful games to rest up and prepare for over the next six weeks.
Photo credit: Tom Brady/Patriots vs. Bills 12/10/05 in Orchard Park, New York, by dholmes.com