The free hat and T-shirt are great.
They represent a division title, an accomplishment that few teams reach, and they are something that each and every player earns and should wear with pride. Let’s be honest: Only eight teams get the free swag, which means it’s certainly worth boasting about. And accordingly, some Patriots couldn’t wait to get their gear and show it off after Sunday’s game. It is an event worth celebrating, especially considering how much this New England team has endured over the 2010 season.
“Being able to come into the locker room and see that hat and T-shirt is one of your goals,” said defensive lineman Vince Wilfork after Sunday’s 34-3 win over the Bills (click here for the full recap) that clinched New England’s eighth division title in 10 years. “That’s something to be proud of.”
That being said, if the last 10 years around Foxboro have taught us anything, it’s that the ultimate goal is rings and trophies, not hats and T-shirts. No one in the organization is going to have a “2010 AFC East Champions” banner stitched and attached to the walkways at the south end of the stadium. For the Patriots, a division title is worth honoring but, in truth, the franchise hopes that the division title is the first significant step in a month-long journey that ends with Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the rest of the team raising a trophy in Dallas.
“It never gets old, I’ll tell you that. We never get tired of winning — that’s what we have been preparing for all offseason and training camp,” Brady said. “To have a chance to do something pretty special today, in a tough division — we have the Bills twice in these conditions, the Jets, Miami, with how difficult of a time that they give us … it’s a good division and to come out victorious, obviously, everyone is very proud of it.
“[But] the season’s not over yet.”
With Sunday’s win over the Bills, the Patriots clinched the AFC East title, as well as home-field advantage throughout the postseason. In a game where New England looked sharp in all three phases of the game, they got a tremendous performance on defense, forced seven turnovers, and posted a season-high in rushing yardage with 217 yards. They scored 34 unanswered points and were never threatened on the way to their 15th consecutive win over the Bills.
As a result, the free gear they got after the game was a hard-earned reward for months of toil and sweat and sacrifice, and will remain a testament to all the weekly drama that was the AFC East in 2010.
“We’re happy about it,” said Belichick after the game. “It’s great, but we’ll just see what comes and take whatever the next step is. We’ll play Miami this week, get ready for them, and take whatever comes after that.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday afternoon in Buffalo:
SOMETIMES, AN INCOMPLETION CAN BE HISTORIC
The record-breaker came on the most innocuous of plays, an incomplete pass in the Buffalo red-zone on the second drive of the second half meant for tight end Rob Gronkowski. But it was the 309th consecutive pass attempt without an interception for Brady, breaking the mark set by Bernie Kosar in the 1990 and 1991 seasons.
“What’s my reaction? I’m glad I’m not throwing interceptions,” said Brady, who extended his NFL record to eight consecutive games with at least two touchdown passes and zero interceptions. “I think our team’s done a really good job of not turning the ball over this year, in general. All of the guys who’ve handled it this year are doing a good job of taking care of it. I’m very fortunate, believe me, to have plenty of plays that definitely could’ve gone to [the opponent]. It’s a good trend for us to be on. Hopefully, it continues.”
One pass after setting the record, Gronkowski caught his second touchdown pass of the game, an eight-yarder with 11:34 left in the third quarter that made it 31-3, New England. (Brady ended up going 15-for-27 for 140 yards, one sack, three touchdown passes and — of course — zero interceptions.) In all, he has now thrown 24 touchdown passes since the start of the streak.
Brady’s interception-free streak started late in the Oct. 17 game against Baltimore when he was picked off twice, the second time coming on a Hail Mary at the end of regulation by Ravens’ defensive back Ken Hamlin. From that point on, Brady has not thrown an interception. There have been several players over the last couple of weeks who have nearly played Ken Keltner to Brady’s Joe DiMaggio (including Chicago’s Brian Urlacher and Green Bay’s Charles Woodson), but Brady has stayed clean since then, and the new streak now stands at 319 consecutive pass attempts without a pick.
To really put this all into perspective, since Oct. 17, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning has thrown 22 picks.
“I didn’t realize he broke that record,” said Belichick. “It’s great. Tom does a good job and today they didn’t get their hands on too many balls like they did last week. He did a good job placing it, unfortunately we dropped a few, could have had a few more catches. But Tom does a great job of managing the game and taking care of the ball and I think that he deserves that [record]. He’s pretty careful with the ball.”
WITH HIS FELLOW TIGHT END SIDELINED, ROB GRONKOWSKI DELIVERED
With Aaron Hernandez on the sidelines because of a hip injury, the Buffalo native — whose family was chauffeured to the game in a limo — came up big, picking up a team-high four receptions for 54 yards and two touchdowns as the Bills struggled to match up with the big rookie.
“He had a great day today,” Brady said of Gronkowski. “He’s had great days all season. He’s been a great player for us. I just think when I was a rookie and how hard it was for me and then to see Rob and what he’s accomplished and what Aaron’s accomplished.”
There was a clear indication to try and get Gronkowski involved early — Brady’s first pass of the day was to the big tight end who was wide open behind the defense, but the ball that was underthrown. Later in the same drive, Gronkowski and Brady failed to connect on a pass over the middle. But on the third play of the second quarter, the two made their first connection of the day, a one-handed 23-yarder down the seam that put New England on the Buffalo 11. Two plays after that, Brady hit Gronkowski in the flat after a smartly executed play fake and the tight end had his first touchdown of the day to make it 14-3.
He picked up his second touchdown of the game in the third quarter on a third-and-7 play from the Buffalo eight. One play after Brady set the mark for consecutive pass attempts without an interception, he found Gronkowski crossing over the middle from the left, just inside the goal line, for touchdown No. 2 on the afternoon.
With the two touchdown receptions — his eighth and ninth of the season — Gronkowski tied wide receiver Jim Colclough and wide receiver Randy Vataha for the Patriots rookie receiving touchdown record with nine touchdowns. In addition, Gronkowski ranks tied for third in total touchdowns among all Patriots rookies, and third in NFL history for touchdowns by a rookie tight end — only Mike Ditka (12) and Junior Miller (9) had more touchdowns as rookies.
Gronkowski and Hernandez have now combined for 1,007 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. Including Alge Crumpler, who had a touchdown catch of his own on Sunday, the position now has 1,049 yards receiving and 16 touchdowns this season. Quite the contrast from last year, where New England got 546 receiving yards and seven touchdowns from the position over the entire regular season.
“It’s so impressive because it’s so hard,” Brady said of the two rookie tight ends. “It’s so hard to understand what it takes to be successful at this level. They’re doing it, they’ve got to keep doing it and they have a great role model in Alge [Crumpler] who’s right at their position, someone they can always look to, who also made some huge plays today. That’s a hell of a group for us.”
OF ALL THE AMAZING THINGS THAT THE PATRIOTS HAVE SEEN THIS YEAR, THE DEVELOPMENT OF BENJARVUS GREEN-ELLIS MIGHT BE THE MOST IMPRESSIVE
When training camp opened in July, Green-Ellis was arguably third on the depth chart. But after a wild season that saw one veteran traded, another go on injured reserve in September and a third spending most of the season on the shelf with a turf toe issue, Green-Ellis has emerged as a key component to the New England running game.
A free agent who was available to anyone when he came into the league in 2008, the Ole Miss product now sits on the cusp of a 1,000-yard season — after finishing with 104 yards in Sunday’s win over the Bills, he needs just 72 yards in next week’s regular-season finale to hit four figures. If he can reach 1,000, he would be the 11th New England player to record a 1,000-yard rushing season and the first New England player to do so since Corey Dillon had a team-record 1,635 rushing yards in 2004.
When it comes to Green-Ellis, there are several things worth appreciating, including his willingness to hit the hole at full speed and his toughness. But it’s his ability to occasionally make something out of nothing that sets him apart — through 15 games and 209 carries, Green-Ellis only has 12 running plays that accounted for negative yardage.
“We were hoping there would be some opportunities in the passing game and the running game,” said Green-Ellis, who registered his third career 100-yard rushing game and the second of the 2010 season on Sunday. “It feels good. We came out, we had a plan we wanted to have executed and I think we did a good job of doing that.”
Green-Ellis is a quiet guy by nature, and won’t talk about the possibility of hitting 1,000 yards, preferring instead to keep the focus on the team.
“Right now, we’re just focusing on whatever it takes to get games won and get that W in the column,” he said when asked about reaching the possible milestone. “So whatever it takes, we’re going to try and go out there and do our best.”
“It makes me happy for Benny,” offensive lineman Logan Mankins told reporters. “He deserves it, he’s worked hard since he’s been here and he ran hard. He’s one of those guys that you truly appreciate, and you like to block for, so that would be great for him to get that.”
OF COURSE, THE DANNY WOODHEAD STORY ISN’T BAD EITHER
The running back had 13 carries for 93 yards against the Bills, including a 29-yard touchdown run in the first quarter that got the Patriots on the board. With the Patriots in a second-and-2 at the Buffalo 29-yard line with just under four minutes left in the first quarter, Woodhead took the handoff on a shotgun draw from Brady and busted through the line. He was able to get a pair of nice blocks from Gronkowski and Crumpler to get to the second level, and he was off to the end zone.
“I just saw some open space, and I was just trying to run, trying to react and try to get the most I could out of the play,” Woodhead said of his touchdown run, his third of the season that went for 20 or more yards. “Fortunately, we got in the end zone.
“Everyone has a part in every play,” added Woodhead, who finished Sunday with a career-high 125 total yards in offense — 93 rushing and 32 receiving. “That’s just how we are as a team, we work together and that’s how it should be. Everyone should do their job, and everyone on this team takes their job very, very seriously.”
While Woodhead isn’t nearing the same sort of milestone Green-Ellis has in his sights, the Chadron State product has more than done his part in diversifying the New England running attack. Woodhead’s work as a third-down, changeup back and Green-Ellis’ between-the-tackles approach has done wonders for the Patriots’ running game, with one complementing the other.
Together, the Green-Ellis/Woodhead combo had 197 rushing yards and 232 total yards in Sunday’s win, and they remain a big reason the Patriots continue to average more than four yards a carry.
“I think we talked earlier in the week— one thing [Buffalo] has been struggling with has been against the run,” Brady said. “We knew coming in that we had to establish it, get things going on the ground, possess the ball and we sure did. I think that takes a lot of pressure off the pass game when you can hand it off all the times that we did and gain those yards. It was a big effort by [Green-Ellis] and [Woodhead] almost had 100 yards. The offensive line blocked great and there were a lot of positive things.”
THIS TURNOVER THING IS GETTING HISTORIC
The Patriots came away with seven turnovers on the afternoon and turned them into 21 points. In order, here’s how they happened.
•Gary Guyton strip sack in the first quarter that turned into a Brady-to-Gronkowski touchdown pass.
•Pat Chung interception in the second quarter that turned into a Brady-to-Alge Crumpler touchdown pass.
•Jarrad Page interception in the third quarter that became another Brady-to-Gronkowski touchdown pass.
•Fumble from Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller in the third quarter that was recovered by Dane Fletcher.
•Fumble from Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick in the third quarter that was recovered by Eric Moore.
•Dane Fletcher interception in the fourth quarter.
•C.J. Spiller fumble on a punt play that was recovered by Sergio Brown.
New England came into the game leading the league in takeaways with a plus-20, and their current plus-27 is easily the highest takeaway ratio in the Belichick era in New England. The Patriots had three picks on Sunday, bringing their season total to 24, which bodes well for New England’s postseason hopes — dating back to the start of the decade, any Patriots team that has finished with at least 19 interceptions has gotten at least as far as the AFC Championship Game, and three of those teams have come away with Super Bowl titles.
“Turnovers win games,” said linebacker Rob Ninkovich. ”I don’t know what the exact total or how many turnovers, I think it was [seven]. It just helps you out a ton. We had good field position for the offense, so it set them up for some of those scores.”
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots offense simply does not turn the ball over. We detailed Brady’s interception-free streak, but that goes for the rest of the team as well. In 10 of the 15 games they have played this season, they have not turned the ball over. Overall, the Patriots have just nine turnovers on the season — five fumbles, four interceptions. According to the NFL Record & Fact Book, the record for fewest turnovers in a season belongs to the 1982 Kansas City Chiefs, who had just 12 turnovers, set during a strike-shortened season.
THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE CONTNUES TO GET KEY RED ZONE STOPS WHEN IT REALLY NEEDS THEM
In the first half with the game still in doubt, the Patriots were able to get a pair of key stops in the Buffalo red zone that stalled the Bills offense and swung the momentum in their favor. Thanks in large part to the work of Fred Jackson — who had 61 rushing yards in the first half, including a 27-yarder on the first play of the game for Buffalo — the Bills easily steered their way down to the Patriots’ 13-yard line. But a Fitzpatrick pass for Stevie Johnson was just out of bounds, a five-yard run off left guard for Jackson and another incomplete for Johnson forced Buffalo to settle for a 26-yard field goal to open the scoring.
Later in the first quarter, with the Patriots holding a 7-3 lead, the Bills got to the New England 17, but the Patriots were able to force their first turnover of the afternoon when linebacker Guyton strip-sacked Fitzpatrick and forced a fumble. Mayo recovered up the football, and New England would cash that in with its second TD of the afternoon to make it 14-3.
“I know a lot of people counted us out. But all year, we knew what we had in this locker room,” Wilfork said. “This football team is getting better. We’re not where we want to be by any means, but we’re definitely moving forward.”
JEROD MAYO MIGHT BE UNDERRATED IN PASS COVERAGE
Without Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham, the Patriots’ linebacker corps was a little thin heading into Sunday’s game against the Bills, but the group — led by Mayo and Guyton — had an excellent performance on Sunday.
But while Guyton had a strip-sack, rookie Dane Fletcher added his first career interception and Tully Banta-Cain added a team-high eight tackles and a quarterback hit, it was Mayo who really shone. He was all over the place against the Bills, engaging in one of the most complete games of his career. He had five tackles, one quarterback hit, two passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. It was Mayo’s third fumble recovery of the 2010 season — he also had fumble recoveries at San Diego on Oct. 24 and at Chicago on Dec. 12. The franchise record for fumble recoveries is five by Bob Lee in 1961. (Six other players have recovered four fumbles in a season.)
The early fumble recovery helped swing the momentum in New England’s favor, but it was his work in pass defense that’ll show up on the highlight reel. He delivered some impressive hits in coverage on Sunday, particularly in the first half on Buffalo’s Stevie Johnson and David Nelson.
WES WELKER’S DROPS ARE PUZZLING
Welker entered the game third in the league in dropped passes with 10 (behind Terrell Owens and Reggie Wayne), and had two bad drops on Sunday against the Bills. With New England sitting on a first-and-10 at the Buffalo 20-yard line with just over four minutes left in the first half, Brady dropped back and threw a screen pass to the right in the direction of Welker, who let the ball slip through the hands. On the next play, Welker was targeted again going over the middle, but ended up with another dropped ball. New England had to settle for a 34-yard field goal from Shayne Graham to make it 17-3 New England.
On the afternoon, Welker ended up being targeted by Brady six times, and he came away with three catches for 19 yards, his smallest output of the year.
Two important things to remember here: one, like most other receivers at the top of the list, Welker is targeted far more than any other receiver on his own team and thus simply gets more chances. (Almost every receiver in the Top 15 heading into this weekend’s game could be considered an elite receiver.) Two, there is no way that this is going to effect Brady’s confidence in Welker going forward. Still, the situation bears watching going forward.
IT DOESN’T MATTER IF THE GAME MEANS NOTHING — TOM BRADY STILL WANTS TO PLAY
The win over the Bills now renders next week’s regular-season finale against the Dolphins meaningless. New England has wrapped up everything it can wrap up — home field throughout the postseason, the No. 1 seed, etc., etc. But that doesn’t mean that the quarterback is interested in just sitting around and watching Brian Hoyer start in his place against Miami.
“Yeah, I want to play,” Brady said when asked if he wants to play next week. “Whatever [Belichick] asks us to do, we’re going to do. Miami is a good team. We struggled with them last time, offensively, so hopefully we go out and play better.”
While the “How much should the starters play” debate will fuel sports talk this week — and there will be reminders about what happened to Welker in last year’s regular-season finale — it’s important to remember that the last time the Patriots were in this position was at the 2004 season when they entered the regular-season finale against the woeful 49ers with a 13-2 record and home-field advantage securely in hand.
Instead of going with backup Rohan Davey and the rest of the junior varsity from the jump against San Francisco, Belichick leaned on the starters throughout most of the first three quarters in a pretty ragged affair — San Francisco jumped to a 7-0 lead and New England’s first three possessions ended with a fumble, interception and punt. (They also had a punt return for a touchdown called back because of a penalty.) The Patriots quickly righted the ship midway through the game, and the starters were lifted here and there once the third quarter came to a close — Brady was yanked in favor of Davey at the start of the fourth quarter as New England went on to a 21-7 win.
After the game, Belichick was asked about playing the starters, he answered flatly — an answer that should provide some insight as to what he’s planning for the Dolphins this week.
“They’re football players,” Belichick said. “They like to play football. It’s football season.”