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.