EditorsNote: Editor’s note: Adds quotes from Bills McCoy and Hughes 20th and 21st graph
Patriots roll past Bills, toward AFC top seed
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Rob Gronkowski made himself laugh late Sunday afternoon.
Asked about the significance of his New England Patriots reaching 12 wins for an NFL-record eighth straight time with a 37-16 victory over the Buffalo Bills, the big tight end, said, “It’s unbelievable.”
That wasn’t the funny part. Pausing, he said, “You think about it — I got here eight years ago. Maybe that’s the reason.” That’s when he laughed.
Gronkowski, again hurting the hometown team that twice passed over him in the draft, made a one-hand touchdown catch and Dion Lewis had his best game as a pro as the Patriots moved a step closer to wrapping up the top seed in the AFC playoffs.
While New England (12-3) won for the 10th time in 11 games, the Bills (8-7) were dealt a blow in their bid to end a 17-year playoff drought.
A Jacksonville loss to the San Francisco 49ers in a late game would ensure a first-round bye for the Patriots — and a New England win at home against the New York Jets next Sunday takes care of the No. 1 seed.
“Twelve and three, one game to go, 13-3 would be a pretty good year,” said Tom Brady. “Just gotta finish strong.”
The Patriots, five-time champions under Bill Belichick, have never reached the Super Bowl without a first-round bye.
Patriots running back Mike Gillislee, rescued from oblivion because of injuries to James White and Rex Burkhead, snapped a 16-16 tie with a 1-yard run late in the third quarter, and Lewis ran for a career-high 129 yards and a touchdown. Lewis also scored on a nifty 12-yard screen pass to help break the game open in the fourth.
“He’s a beast for his size,” Gronkowski said of Lewis.
Brady, guilty of a pick-six by Jordan Poyer that gave the Bills a 10-3 second-quarter lead, also threw the touchdown pass to Gronkowski to reach 30 touchdown passes for the seventh time in his career (fourth-most all time).
The Bills, who play at Miami in their finale and need outside help even if they win, have never won at Gillette Stadium when Brady has played a complete game.
The interception was the sixth thrown by Brady in the past five games. It is the second time in his career — first since 2002 — he has thrown at least one interception in five consecutive games.
Gillislee, a former Bill, scored his fifth touchdown of the season, his first since Week 2.
Brady, in his 250th career start, which is third all-time among quarterbacks, finished 21 of 28 for 224 yards. Gronkowski had five catches for 67 yards after his wrecking-ball game against the Pittsburgh Steelers last week.
The Patriots benefitted from two overturned calls. One of those rulings took a Buffalo touchdown off the scoreboard.
NFL television officiating analysts Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino both thought Kelvin Benjamin had a touchdown near the end of the first half. The call was overturned, and Buffalo settled for a field goal.
After the game, referee Craig Wrolstad, in a pool report, said, “When the receiver got confirmed control of the football, he was not able to get both feet down in bounds. So, his back foot was already off the ground and it stepped out of bounds. His firm control did not occur until after he had one foot on the ground.”
“I saw Kelvin’s catch before halftime as a touchdown. I’m at a loss how a play like that can be overturned,” said Buffalo coach Sean McDermott.
“Officials up here, they always find a way to get it right for the Patriots,” McCoy said, according to NESN. “That’s not the reason why we lost, but it sure would have helped out in the game. It’s just crazy man, because you put so much into it, and then you get robbed like that. C’mon. That’s a touchdown.”
Defensive tackle Jerry Hughes chimed in saying, “Somebody in Boston got the refs on the payroll. Y’all paying them big money out here. Still ain’t gonna win, though.”
Benjamin, asked if he made a catch, said, “I mean definitely, but ref made the call and you’ve got to live with that. We just wanted to move on, try to come back out (in the second half) and put some more points on the board.”
McDermott made a curious decision early in the fourth quarter. Down by seven, the Bills had a fourth-and-1 at the New England 32 — and McDermott elected to go for a 50-yard field goal by Stephen Hauschka, who missed badly.
Hauschka, who hails from the area, kicked three field goals, while Stephen Gostkowski kicked three for the Patriots.
New England wide receiver Brandin Cooks cleared the 1,000-yard mark for the third straight season and gave the Patriots two 1,000-yard receivers (Gronkowski the other) for the sixth time.
Buffalo running back LeSean McCoy ran for 71 yards and caught five passes for 76 more. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who converted on four straight third-down situations on his team’s opening drive, was 21 of 38 for 281 yards in the loss.
NOTES: Bills RB Travaris Cadet, who played one game with the Patriots in 2015, was carted off late in the first half with a fractured right ankle after he was hit by Trey Flowers. ... Bills CB E.J. Gaines, who sustained a knee injury in the win over Miami, was questionable for the game and was ruled out. ... Patriots K Stephen Gostkowski cleared the 150-point mark for the season for the sixth time, extending his NFL record, and he became the 19th player to reach the 1,600-point career mark. ... Bills DT Kyle Williams sacked New England QB Tom Brady for the second time this season and moved into sixth place on the team’s all-time list with 43.5.