Patriots return home for long stay

Posted Dec. 27, 2010, at 6:40 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 27, 2010, at 8:59 p.m.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots can settle in now that they’re finally home after their latest win.

They’ll be there as long as they’re in the AFC playoffs.

“Just rolling back into town,” coach Bill Belichick said Monday after the snow-delayed flight, “but mission accomplished.”

The Patriots (13-2) clinched homefield advantage throughout the conference playoffs with a 34-3 win over Buffalo on Sunday, their seventh straight victory and third blowout in the last four games.

They’ve seemed nearly unstoppable for much of their last five. That doesn’t figure to change much in their regular-season finale Sunday at home against the Miami Dolphins (7-8) as long as Tom Brady and many of the first-stringers play a lot.

Brady would like to, but Belichick was noncommittal about how much rest he would give his regulars.

“There’s a lot of things that would go into that conversation, a lot of things we’ll take into consideration,” he said. “There’s some players individually whose situations are a little different than other guys. … We’ll do what’s best for the football team, both individually and collectively.”

Last season, the Patriots already had clinched a playoff spot going into the final game, against the Houston Texans. Wide receiver Wes Welker still played and seriously injured his knee. The Patriots lost a week later to the Baltimore Ravens 33-14 in the first round of the playoffs.

Welker made a speedy recovery and has had an outstanding season. So has rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski, who caught two touchdown passes against Buffalo.

Getting back to Foxborough was much tougher than finding the Bills end zone.

The storm that hit the Northeast left the Patriots stranded in western New York. And being the hottest team in the NFL didn’t open up any doors at Buffalo-area hotels, most of which were booked because the city was hosting the World Junior Hockey Championships.

So a few hours after Brady set the NFL record with 319 straight passes without an interception, he was just another bus passenger along with his teammates on a one-hour trip east to Rochester, where they spent the night.

Shortly before 3 p.m. Monday, their plane landed in Providence. About a half hour later they were back in Foxborough.

“We had some (chicken) wings on the plane,” Belichick said. “They hit the spot.”

Just like Brady.

He’s been amazingly accurate at finding his receivers and not the defenders covering them. He’s gone 10 games without throwing an interception and has just four all year with 34 touchdowns passing.

“I think as much as everyone points at me for that, so much goes into what (we’re) doing offensively with protection from the offensive line,” Brady said on his weekly appearance on WEEI radio. “I’m never forced into rushing throws. We’ve also been ahead in a lot of games so don’t have to try to jam balls into tight spots, areas that you would if you were really desperate in the second half.”

The Patriots have 36 takeaways and have committed just nine turnovers all season. The Bills committed seven turnovers Sunday.

And the last seven games? The Patriots have taken the ball away 22 times and not given it up at all.

“I think that’s a pretty good stat just from an overall team basis,” Brady said. “All the guys work pretty hard at it.”

The players return to practice Wednesday, but the coaches will be back at work Tuesday, getting a late start on final preparations for the Dolphins because of the belated return to Foxborough.

“We’re just going to have to get caught up here,” Belichick said. “We’re a few hours behind the normal Sunday game but significantly ahead of where we’d be (if we’d played) on a Monday night.”

Once the Dolphins game is over, the Patriots will have a bye week to nurse their injuries and prepare before playing at home in the AFC semifinal. Brady has won his last 27 home games during the regular season, an NFL record. But he did lose to the Ravens in last season’s opening round.

Since then, the Patriots have gotten major contributions from rookies — cornerback Devin McCourty, linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham, and tight ends Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez — and former free agent running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead.

A season that began with great uncertainty has turned into a great one for the Patriots. But Belichick isn’t ready to rate one season against another for the three-time Super Bowl champions.

“Every season’s a very challenging season in the National Football League,” he said. “I take satisfaction in the team’s achievements every week if we win and disappointment if we don’t.”

He hasn’t been disappointed much this year.

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