FOXBORO — If this was a playoff preview, it was a beauty.
In a game that had lead changes and great plays, the Patriots stopped the Bills inside the 10 yard line in the final two minutes to beat Buffalo, 24-17, at a raucous Gillette Stadium to earn their 11th consecutive AFC East title.
Rex Burkhead scored with just over five minutes left and the defense held off the Bills, who had first-and-goal at the Patriots 8 in the final two minutes.
Tom Brady appeared in a focused and determined mood during his weekly press conference on Thursday.
On Saturday in the first half, we got a glimpse of that attitude paying dividends as he came on fire with a point to prove.
He opened the game completing his first eight passes for 78 yards and a touchdown. But Brady was also supported by a dominating run game that blew the Bills off the line of scrimmage, gaining 41 yards on eight carries between Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead in the first quarter.
There were two themes that were repeated during the week: Ball security – or lack thereof – by the Bills and the play of safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde.
Well, the lack of ball security crept and took a rare bite from the Patriots on the first drive of the game when Burkhead caught a pass from Brady for 18 yards but was caught from behind by Poyer, who punched the ball free with his left hand.
The Bills struck first on a 35-yard field goal from Stephen Hauschka after the Poyer forced fumble on Rex Burkhead and the 31-yard fumble return by Hyde to the Patriots 31. The Bills managed one first down but the Patriots defense stiffened from there and conceded only the field goal.
From that moment, it was all Patriots the rest of the first half until the final 90 seconds.
The Patriots answered their miscue on the first drive with a march of precision on their second possession, going 75 yards in 11 plays. That drive was capped off by an 8-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Matt LaCosse. Not only was it the first career touchdown reception for LaCosse, it was the 76th different touchdown target by Brady, extending his NFL record. It was also the 539th career of his career, matching Peyton Manning for second place all-time behind Drew Brees.
Brady’s most impressive drive came on the first possession of the second quarter after former Patriot Corey Bojorquez pinned New England at their own half-yard line. Brady proceeded to direct a 17-play, 81-yard drive, consuming nearly nine minutes of the second quarter clock. It concluded when Nick Folk connected from 36 yards for a 10-3 lead with 5:04 left in the first half.
The Patriots defense was smothering Josh Allen and the Bills for most of the first half, holding Buffalo to three first downs on the first four drives. The Patriots looked to take advantage of poor clock management by the Bills late in the first half, when they fell into a 3rd-and-23 and were forced to punt to the Patriots. The Patriots had the ball in great position at midfield. But after Mohamed Sanu failed to get to the first down marker on his third down route, Sanu committed another costly mistake on the next snap. Facing a 4th-and-1 at the Bills 41 with 36 seconds left, Sanu missed a block on the edge and corner Kevin Johnson broke through and flipped Harry for no gain and giving the ball back to the Bills.
Sanu whiffed badly. pic.twitter.com/2G1Gug3L2A
— Decaf Metcalf ☕ (@FTBeard11) December 21, 2019
With just 33 seconds left, Josh Allen managed to march the Bills 59 yards in 32 seconds, capped by a one-yard tackle-eligible pass from Allen to a wide-open Dion Dawkins. The two key plays on the drive were a 16-yard run up the middle by Allen on second down. Two plays later, Allen lofted a pass down the left side to Dawson Knox, who stretched out and beat Patrick Chung for the catch down at the Patriots 1. Two plays later, the Bills had stunned the Patriots with a game-tying touchdown with a second left in the half.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) December 21, 2019
The Patriots stopped the Bills on the first drive of the third quarter and the offense answered with a 44-yard drive in seven plays, capped by a 51-yard Folk field goal, giving the Patriots a 13-10 lead with 9:54 left in the third. The Patriots thought for a moment they had a go-ahead touchdown, as Brady flipped to an uncovered Ben Watson for 33 yards down the left sideline. But Julian Edelman was called for offensive pass interference as he and Poyer collided around the 30 yard line. Edelman was stunned on the ground and took some time to get up. He stayed in the game but eventually came out. He returned from concussion protocol and re-entered the game with 9:01 left in the fourth quarter.
The Bills took the lead when John Brown ran past Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty and was wide open, running under a 53-yard rainbow from Allen for a 17-13 Bills lead.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) December 21, 2019
The Patriots got to within one, 17-16, when Nick Folk drilled a 20-yard field goal with 10 minutes left. The Patriots had first and goal from the Bills 5 but couldn’t punch it in. Brady hesitated on his third-down run and was stopped at the 2.
On Edelman’s first series back, he immediately caught a 30-yard pass on first down on a quick slant down to the Bills 29. The Patriots would finished the drive with a powerful Rex Burkhead one-yard run off the right side as he broke through an arm tackle for the go-ahead score. Brady hit Edelman for the 2-point conversion and it was 24-17 Patriots with just 5:06 left in the fourth.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) December 22, 2019
The Bills answered with a drive to the Patriots 30 where they faced 4th-and-1. Allen, with a great second effort, ran for the first down to keep the drive alive with 2:45 left. But Allen was sacked and forced to throw a desperate pass for the end zone on fourth down.
The Patriots wrap up the regular season in a playoff tuneup with the Dolphins next Sunday at Gillette Stadium.