FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady and the New England Patriots do an outstanding job rallying from behind. They’ve been getting plenty of practice.
Now that the Patriots have clinched home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs by scoring the final 49 points in a 49-21 win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, they know it will be much harder to recover from a poor start.
“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.”
Tough, but not impossible. Not with Brady leading the attack.
He finished 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.
The Patriots (13-3) have won their last eight games. But for the third in a row, they fell behind early.
They trailed Denver 13-7 in the first quarter but beat the Broncos 41-23. Then they edged the Dolphins 27-24 after trailing 17-0 at halftime. Finally, they took charge Sunday after the Bills (6-10) scored touchdowns on their first three possessions, drawing boos from the home fans.
That changed to a steady stream of cheers as the Patriots dominated the next three quarters, scoring on seven of their next eight possessions.
“I’d love to be able to see what it looks like when we put together 60 great minutes of football,” Brady said. “Today was 45, but it was better than 30 last week.”
And they won both games, a much more important achievement than surpassing 5,000 yards.
“I play this game for one reason and that’s to win,” Brady said. “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.”
For a while, it looked like he’d be tossing and turning thanks, in large part, to a defense that 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 Bills took a 21-0 lead in the first quarter on a 4-yard run by Tashard Choice and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s scoring passes of 18 yards to Stevie Johnson and 15 yards to C.J. Spiller.
“They couldn’t stop us,” wide receiver David Nelson said.
Johnson was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct when he lifted his jersey to reveal a T-shirt with the words “Happy New Year.” After that, he was benched by coach Chan Gailey.
“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 pass to Spiller gave Fitzpatrick 13 completions in 16 attempts for 156 yards and two touchdowns. At that point, Brady had thrown twice, both incompletions.
He finished with 23 completions in 35 attempts for three touchdowns — two to Rob Gronkowski — and one interception. Fitzpatrick ended at 29 for 46 for 307 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions.
Gronkowski set the 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 Saints. The previous mark 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 Belichick called to give him a shot at the record.
“It was cool, unbelievable,” Gronkowski said of having that chance. “It says a lot about this team.”
As the top seed in the AFC, the Patriots will have their home fans behind them as they drive for the Super Bowl.
“We’ve seen the No. 6 team win the Super Bowl. We’ve seen (a) first seed team win the Super Bowl,” Belichick said. “What’s more important than where you’re seeded is how you play in the playoffs.”
Buffalo had snapped a seven-game losing streak with a 40-21 win over Denver in its previous game but heads into the offseason with the memory of a 5-2 start that it couldn’t sustain.
The game, Fitzpatrick said, “was kind of like our season. It started off so well with 21 points and we had things rolling offensively. … but when Stevie got taken out and Scott (Chandler) went down (with a knee injury) it changed things for us. It slowed us down.”
Sunday’s deficit was the Patriots biggest of the season, but they had Brady to lead them back.
A 1-yard run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis and a 39-yard pass to Aaron Hernandez, which put Brady over the 5,000-yard mark, cut the lead to 21-14.
Field goals of 41 and 20 yards by Stephen Gostkowski made it 21-20 and the Patriots went ahead to stay 28-21 on Brady’s 17-yard scoring pass to Gronkowski with 1:32 left in the third quarter and a 2-point conversion run by Danny Woodhead.
They kept rolling with a 3-yard touchdown run by Green-Ellis, a 7-yard scoring pass to Gronkowski with 3:07 left in the game and a 21-yard interception return for another touchdown by Sterling Moore just seven seconds later.
In the teams’ first meeting in Week 3, the Bills overcame a 21-0 deficit for a 34-31 victory in which Brady threw four interceptions. But on Sunday, the Patriots intercepted four passes and avoided being swept by an AFC East opponent for the first time since 2000 and by the Bills since 1999.
Belichick, meanwhile, became the only coach in NFL history with at least 13 regular-season wins in five different seasons.
Notes: Tight end Chandler didn’t play after the second quarter. … Rookie Stevan Ridley led the Patriots with a career-high 81 yards rushing. … Welker had six catches for 51 yards and led the NFL with 122 receptions and 1,569 yards receiving.