Now, it is on to the real season for the New England Patriots.
Seeking their fourth championship of the Bill Belichick era, but their first since the 2004 season, the Patriots overcame plenty of adversity to finish the regular season as the AFC East champs with a 12-4 record, landing the No. 2 seed and a bye in the conference playoffs.
They have a bye in next weekend’s wild-card round and will play at home the divisional round on Jan. 11 against the winner of either Kansas City vs. Indianapolis or San Diego vs. Cincinnati.
“This team earned it, and I’m happy for them,” Belichick said after hulking running back LeGarrette Blount carried the Patriots to a rain-soaked 34-20 victory over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
Adversity? Start with the tight end problem, the loss of the arrested Aaron Hernandez, the delayed start and then the loss again of Rob Gronkowski. The defense suffered season-ending injuries to nose tackle Vince Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo and tackle Tommy Kelly.
The list of problems is long, but the Patriots won five of their last six games to get right back where the team expects to be every year.
The Patriots, 8-0 at home, will rest for a week before hosting a divisional playoff game.
Blount ran for a career-high 189 yards, including touchdown runs of 36 and 35 yards, and also recorded kickoff returns of 83 and 62 yards (both besting the previous team high for the season) in the second half.
The 189 rushing yards represents the fifth-highest total in franchise history, the most since Robert Edwards had 196 in 1998. The 344 all-purpose yards is a Patriots record, the 11th-best total in NFL history.
Blount, who posted his second consecutive two-touchdown game, left to a huge ovation and a hug from Belichick as the Patriots were running out the clock.
“He carried the team on his back most of the day,” said Belichick, who thanked “assistant pro personnel director (Aqib) Talib” for advising him to acquire Blount. “It was definitely a running game (because of the rain).”
Blount denied carrying the team.
“On the returns I had, I didn’t get touched for like the first 30 yards, so I tip my hat off to those (blockers),” he said. “And the offensive line played amazing, so you can’t give them enough credit.”
Asked about the hug with Belichick, he said, “It was just the excitement of us winning the game and getting the first-round bye into the playoffs.”
The Patriots ran for a season-high 267 yards in beating Buffalo for the 13th straight time in Foxboro, the last 12 at Gillette Stadium.
Stephen Gostkowski kicked four field goals and added two extra points, breaking the Patriots’ 49-year-old season scoring record. He had 158 points for the season, breaking Gino Cappelletti’s 1964 mark. He also broke his own team record for field goals in a season with 38. He kicked 36 field goals in 2008.
New England wide receiver Julian Edelman caught nine passes for 65 yards, clearing both the 100-catch and 1,000-yard plateaus in the first half (105 for 1,056 yards). He is the third Patriot with 100 catches in a season (Wes Welker did it five times). Edelman, who also caught a two-point conversion pass from Brady, is the 10th New England receiver to top 1,000 yards in a season.
Brady went 14-for-24 for 122 yards with one touchdown pass and one interception.
On a third-and-32 from the New England 46 in the third quarter, Brady launched a 32-yard punt, the third punt of his career.
“It could have been a lot better,” he said.
NOTEBOOK: The Patriots fumbled four times in the steady downpour but recovered all four. … New England amassed 173 yards rushing in the first half, a team high for a half since at least 1991. … OT Nate Solder returned after missing a game with a concussion. That moved Pro Bowl pick Logan Mankins back to guard. Mankins was helped off the field with an ankle injury in the second quarter but was back for the last drive of the half. … WR Aaron Dobson left with a foot injury and didn’t return. … CB Alfonzo Dennard was out with shoulder and knee woes. … LB Brandon Spikes, playing on a bad knee, left the game late.