Turns out, the Patriots were just toying with the Bills. Just like they were toying with the Dolphins a week ago. After falling behind 21-0 in the first quarter against Buffalo, New England scored 49 unanswered to win 49-21. And by the time it was over, not only had the Pats locked up the No. 1 seed in the AFC, they also managed to make sure Rob Gronkowski broke the record for single-season receiving yards for a tight end.
As a side note, quarterback Tom Brady, who came into Sunday's action with a sore left shoulder, ended the afternoon 23 of 35 for 338 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. In the process, he became the second quarterback this season to surpass 5,000 passing yards (Drew Brees did it last week).
"Guys did a lot, catching the ball and running with it," Brady said after the game, according to ESPNBoston.com. "Our passing game has been obviously a big strong point of this team. The pass catchers and the blockers have been great and we’ve run the ball great, too, at times. That’s what it takes – a complementary offense. You run it and we throw it when we need to throw it and we can be effective. You have to stay balanced and those guys have done a great job all year doing stuff with it."
Of course, this is the Patriots where, in the scheme of things, individual honors don't mean much.
"I play this game for one reason and it’s to win. There’s nothing more important to me than that. As a quarterback you do everything you can do to help this team win. When your number is called upon to go out and execute certain plays, that’s what you’re expected to do. It’s not something I think about, it’s not something I ever [think], ‘Man, I love throwing touchdowns,’ or ‘I love throwing for yards.’ I love winning and that helps me sleep at night."
That said, head coach Bill Belichick recognizes personal achievements, even if it's not the end-all be-all. When asked about the decision to get Gronkowski the record (the Saints' Jimmy Graham held it briefly earlier in the day), here's what he said: "That last play, I had [offensive coordinator] Billy [O'Brien] call that because I wasn't sure exactly where he was and I thought he deserved a chance to go up and try to make another play. He's had a great year, he's worked hard, and I thought he deserved that."
Gronkowski's response: "It's unbelievable. It's surreal that they even let me get that opportunity. It's cool that they'd even let me go out there. We could have just kneed the ball, we put [backup quarterback Brian] Hoyer in the game, and he threw a nice pass, and I just went up and made a play. That's what is so great about being here with your teammates, with the coaches, everyone is so unselfish that it's crazy. I thanked them after the game letting me have a chance like that. It never would have been done without my teammates, without Aaron [Hernandez], without the QBs, without the coaches."
In New England, even individual accomplishments possess a team element. And maybe that's why Belichick was so keen on giving Gronkowski a chance. Whatever the reason, the Patriots end the regular season as the AFC's best team and now have a week off to get healthy and prepare for whatever comes next.