Brady Leads Pats to Top Seed, Beats Bills 49-21

Down by three touchdowns? Simply score the next 49 points and beat the Buffalo Bills 49-21. Trailing 17-0 a week earlier? Stay calm and come back for a 27-24 win over the Miami Dolphins.

“You never want to get down 21-0,” Brady said after the Patriots did just that on Sunday. “But, if we do, we do and we have to find a way to battle back.”

That’s what they did after the Bills scored touchdowns on their first three possessions.

“There’s no panic,” Brady said. “I just feel like it’s really a matter of execution and we started executing better.”

With the win, the Patriots (13-3) earned the AFC’s top seed for the second straight season and home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. They have a bye next weekend, giving them plenty of time to figure out how to avoid a rough start against a much tougher team than Buffalo and Miami, who both finished at 6-10.

“We don’t want to be doing that,” Rob Gronkowski said. “It’s the playoffs now. We’ve got the best teams coming in the house.”

Gronkowski caught two touchdown passes and set the NFL single-season record for tight ends with 1,327 yards receiving after gaining 108 on eight catches. That broke the mark of 1,310 set earlier Sunday by Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints. The previous record of 1,290 was set in 1980 by Kellen Winslow of the San Diego Chargers.

The record came on a 22-yard completion from backup Brian Hoyer with 1:30 left, a play that coach Bill Belichick called.

“I thought he deserved another chance to go up and try to make another play,” Belichick said. “He’s had a great year and he’s worked hard. I thought he deserved that.”

Brady also reached a milestone, finishing the regular season with the second most yards passing in NFL history, 5,235, after throwing for 338. Drew Brees, who last week broke Dan Marino’s record of 5,084 with the Miami Dolphins in 1984, added 389 Sunday for the Saints and ended with 5,486.

“I play this game for one reason and that’s to win,” Brady said after the Patriots’ eighth straight victory. “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.”

The Bills, their early season promise drowned by a horrible second half, could have plenty of restless nights. They lost eight of their last nine games after starting at 5-2.

“It was a big learning experience and next year it can’t be a learning experience for us,” quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said. “It’s got to be a year we come out and play well all year. We’re going to have another offseason in the same system.”

The Bills led a 21-0 on a 4-yard run by Tashard Choice and Fitzpatrick’s scoring passes of 18 yards to Stevie Johnson and 15 yards to C.J. Spiller. The Patriots made it 21-14 at halftime on a 1-yard run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis and a 39-yard pass play from Brady to Aaron Hernandez, who ran with the ball most of the way.

New England cut that to 21-20 on field goals of 47 and 20 yards by Stephen Gostkowski, then went ahead to stay on Brady’s 17-yard pass to Gronkowski. The Patriots kept going with a 3-yard touchdown run by Green-Ellis, a 7-yard scoring pass to Gronkowski with 3:07 left and a 21-yard interception return for a touchdown by Sterling Moore just 7 seconds later.

“When you get them in a big hole like that, you’ve just got to put your foot on the neck,” Bills cornerback Drayton Florence said, “and we weren’t able to do that.”

Buffalo’s offense struggled after losing wide receiver Stevie Johnson, who was benched, and tight end Scott Chandler, who hurt his knee, in the first half.

“It slowed us down,” Fitzpatrick said.

Coach Chan Gailey didn’t use Johnson after he was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct when he scored and raised his jersey to reveal an undershirt with the message “Happy New Year!” on it.

“I can’t complain about it or whine and pout. He made his decision and I am going with it,” Johnson said. “What I did hurt my teammates.”

The Patriots defense also stepped up with four interceptions, all in the second half. Fitzpatrick completed 29 of 46 passes for 307 yards and two touchdowns. Brady was 23 for 35 for 338 with three touchdown passes and one interception.

New England set the NFL record for most yards passing allowed, 4,727. The previous mark of 4,541 was set by the Atlanta Falcons in 1995.

The competition should be tougher in their next game, so that defense will have to be stingier. Especially early in the game.

“Every team in the playoffs is good,” Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo said. “To be honest, it would be tough to come back against them if we’re behind 21-0.”

Notes: Belichick became the only coach in NFL history with at least 13 regular-season wins in five different seasons. … The Patriots outgained the Bills 296 yards to 107 in the second half. … Rookie Stevan Ridley led the Patriots with a career-high 81 yards rushing. … Wes Welker had six catches for 51 yards and led the NFL with 122 receptions and 1,569 yards receiving.

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Struggling Bills Heading Toward Uncertain Future

After five straight losses, barring a sporting miracle, the Bills (5-7) will miss the National Football League (NFL) playoffs for a 12th straight year, a run of gridiron failure that could stand alone.

If the Detroit Lions and Houston Texans clinch a post-season spot as expected, the Bills will become the only NFL team not to make a playoff appearance since 1999, heaping more misery on a franchise that has had just one winning campaign in 11 seasons.

“It’s hard. It’s tough. It’s no fun,” Bills coach Chan Gailey said about his team’s flickering playoff hopes. “I know we’re not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs and you don’t ever concede it until you are, but at the same time it’d be very difficult for us to make it.

“You feel a huge responsibility to the organization, to the football team and to the fans.”

The glow from a 4-1 start to the season, which included an upset of AFC East powerhouse New England, has long faded as evidenced by the more than 16,000 unsold seats at the Bills’ home loss last Sunday to the Tennessee Titans.

The game was the first this season the Bills failed to sell enough tickets for to prevent a local television blackout and with two home dates remaining against Miami on December 18 and Denver on December 24 the chances of a full stadium seem remote.

“The fans have been awesome especially early on when we were winning games,” said Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was rewarded with a six-year $59 million contract extension after the team’s quick start. “This was truly a home field advantage and it was electric.

“The way that we’ve played lately hasn’t been good enough.”

Sitting at the eastern end of Lake Erie, winters are long and hard in Buffalo and this year’s could be particularly nasty with the franchise’s future once again in doubt.

The Bills’ 93-year-old owner Ralph Wilson has been secretive about succession plans for the franchise while the 38-year-old stadium that bears his name in the tiny hamlet of Orchard Park is in desperate need of major renovations with the current lease agreement set to expire in 2013.

“You absolutely have the perfect storm for a team that may get relocated,” Robert Boland, professor of sports management at New York University’s Tisch Center told Reuters. “The NFL has its roots in small cities like Buffalo and Green Bay, around the Great Lakes and if you are the NFL, you would hate to lose that legacy.

“But on the other hand the city of Toronto beckons 60 miles away with incredible wealth and a cosmopolitan environment that has to seem appealing.”

FAN BASE

The Bills’ problems extend well beyond a losing record and aging stadium. Like other cities in the Rust Belt, the city of Buffalo has watched businesses flee and its population shrink.

Desperate to expand its fan base, Wilson sold five regular season games and three preseason contests between 2008 and 2012 to their northern neighbours in Toronto for $78 million.

With a robust corporate community, the Toronto market is one the Bills may have to keep leaning on to remain viable.

But Toronto has an eye on a permanent NFL team of its own while Los Angeles, with plans for a new stadium in place, will soon be looking for a tenant.

The biggest concern for Bills fans, however, may well be the health of the team’s owner.

It is not known if Wilson has a succession plan in place and without one the Bills franchise could die with their owner.

“Let’s say the Bills get a very conservative evaluation of $600 million, you’re talking about an inheritance tax for Ralph Wilson heirs of around $300 million,” explained Boland. “They may be forced to leave Buffalo because of the inheritance tax situation.

“If Mr. Wilson were to pass away, this team in Buffalo may not be savable.

“The sad part about this is that if Buffalo were to lose their team is that there is no other city other than Green Bay where a pro sport franchise probably means as much.”

(Reporting by Steve Keating; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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Brady Helps Patriots Clinch Top Seed With Seventh Win in Row

Now they will probably be even tougher to stop when the playoffs begin after securing the A.F.C.’s top seed — and home-field advantage through the first three rounds — with a 34-3 victory Sunday over a familiar pushover, the .

Brady threw three touchdown passes, including two to tight end Rob Gronkowski, and extended his streak of attempts without an interception to 319. That topped the mark of 308 set by Bernie Kosar with Cleveland in the 1990 and 1991 seasons.

“I guess I’m glad I’m not throwing interceptions,” Brady said, shrugging off the record.

He was more pleased with helping the Patriots (13-2) finish first in the A.F.C. for the third time since 2003 and clinch their eighth division title in 10 years.

“It never gets old,” Brady said. “We never get tired of winning.”

Brady finished 15 of 27 for 140 yards and had his eighth straight game with two or more scores. Alge Crumpler had a 4-yard touchdown catch, Danny Woodhead scored on a 29-yard run and Shayne Graham kicked two field goals.

The Patriots are marching to the playoffs riding a seven-game winning streak — their longest since going 16-0 in 2007. Brady is leading an offense that has scored 31 or more points in seven straight games. He has also thrown only four interceptions, since throwing two in a 23-20 victory against Baltimore on Oct. 17.

The Bills (4-11) have had a hard enough time beating their division rival to begin with, having now lost 15 in a row and 20 of their past 21 against them. And they made it even more difficult on themselves by committing seven turnovers.

“I killed the team today,” said Ryan Fitzpatrick, who lost two fumbles and threw three interceptions.

¶ threw four touchdown passes during a near-perfect performance in the swirling snow, and the host (4-11) beat the , 34-20, ending San Diego’s run of four straight A.F.C. West titles.

The Chargers (8-7) froze up in their coldest game in nearly three years, repeatedly self-destructing on a raw, windy evening. It was only San Diego’s second loss in its last 22 games in December.

The loss gave the , who beat the , 34-14, earlier, their first division title since ’s 2003 team went 13-3. The Chiefs’ 10 wins in Todd Haley’s second season as coach are six better than last year’s 4-12 mark and match the total of the past three miserable seasons combined.

In Kansas City, Matt Cassel threw three touchdown passes and Eric Berry returned an interception 54 yards for another score. Cassel completed 12 of his first 13 passes against the Titans (6-9), including touchdown tosses to Jamaal Charles on their first two possessions.

¶Joe Flacco threw two touchdown passes, Baltimore’s defense bottled up Cleveland’s Peyton Hillis, and the visiting clinched their third straight playoff appearance, beating the Browns, 20-10. The Ravens (11-4) remain tied with Pittsburgh for the A.F.C. North lead with one game left.

Ravens linebacker promised Hillis would not repeat his 144-yard performance against Baltimore in Week 3, and Hillis was held to 35 yards on 12 carries Sunday.

threw three interceptions, and the Browns (5-10) did little to help the embattled coach (10-21 in two seasons).

Playoff Hopes Intact

Sam Bradford broke ’s N.F.L. rookie record for completions, and his first touchdown pass in four games gave the host breathing room in a 25-17 victory over the 49ers. Bradford has 335 completions, topping Manning’s record of 326 in 1998.

The Rams (7-8) need to win at Seattle next week to clinch their first playoff bid since 2004.

Troy Smith, who was sacked three times, was benched in the fourth quarter of a loss that eliminated the 49ers (5-10) from playoff contention in the N.F.C. West.

¶Josh Freeman threw for 237 yards and a career-best five scores to help the host Buccaneers keep their playoff hopes alive with a 38-15 rout of the struggling .

Kellen Winslow and the rookie Mike Williams each had a pair of touchdown catches for the Buccaneers (9-6), who guaranteed themselves a winning record after going 3-13 a year ago in their first season under Coach Raheem Morris.

The Seahawks (6-9) played most of the game without quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who injured his hip. They can still win the N.F.C. West — with a losing record — by beating the Rams on Sunday.

¶Peyton Manning made sure the came out ahead in a game it turned out they did not need to win to stay in control of the A.F.C. South race. Manning threw three touchdown passes and iced the game with a 27-yard keeper to help the Colts beat the host , 31-26.

The Raiders (7-8) were eliminated from playoff contention when Kansas City earlier beat Tennessee.

The Colts (9-6) allowed Jacoby Ford to return the opening kick for a touchdown, overcame a pair of interceptions by Manning in the second half and survived four field goals from Sebastian Janikowski, including two from more than 50 yards, to move within a victory of clinching the A.F.C. South title for their ninth straight playoff berth.

But when the Jaguars lost, 20-17, in overtime to the in an earlier game, the Colts knew that no matter what happened in this game they could clinch the division with a win at home next week against the Titans or a loss by the Jaguars (6-9) at Houston.

In Jacksonville on Sunday, Kevin Barnes intercepted David Garrard’s second pass in overtime, setting up Graham Gano’s 31-yard field goal that boosted the Redskins (6-9).

Looking Good Tad Too Late

scored on a 6-yard scramble with three minutes left to cap a rally from a 17-point halftime deficit as the host defeated the , 24-23. It was Tebow’s first N.F.L. victory. The Broncos (4-11) won for the first time since Nov. 14 and avoided a franchise record 12th loss in handing the Texans (5-10) their eighth loss in nine games.

¶The took advantage of two interceptions to score 17 points in the final 4:37 and rally past the host , 34-27. With the comeback, Detroit (5-10) has won three consecutive games for the first time since 2007. Miami (7-8) finished 1-7 at home to match a franchise low.

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