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Now the real season starts for title-hungry New England

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – We’re on to the playoffs, the only season that matters in Fort Foxborough.

The next time the Patriots take the field at Gillette Stadium there will be a much more meaningful milieu than Sunday’s 17-9 regular-season-ending defeat to the Buffalo Bills, a throwaway game that couldn’t be junked fast enough.

The only positive was the Patriots got out of the game largely unscathed. Left tackle Nate Solder left the game with a knee injury.

Once again, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will try to capture the seven pounds of sterling silver that has remained just beyond their reach since the 2004 season. This will be the 10th time the Patriots have tried to win a fourth Lombardi Trophy. It’s a golden opportunity to add to their trophy collection.

It’s probably unfair that the Patriots (12-4) are judged on the basis of lifting the Lombardi Trophy or being a complete letdown. But with historic greatness comes great expectations. The Patriots foster those expectations by making winning in the NFL look as easy as DVR-ing your favorite show. Just hit that red button and win 12 or more games, collect a first-round bye and home field throughout the AFC playoffs.

When the Patriots were winning three Super Bowls in four seasons in the early aughts and the Indianapolis Colts were racking up regular-season wins, nobody in these parts was anointing division titles, first-round byes, and double-digit win seasons as epic accomplishments.

It was all about the Super Bowl bling. The target doesn’t move just because you haven’t hit the bull’s-eye in a few years.

Is this the year, or will it be another wait-‘till-next-year for the canonized coupling of Brady and Belichick? This version of the Patriots certainly seems more equipped for January and February football than prior ones, and the AFC road to Super Bowl XLIX runs down Route 1 in Foxborough.

The defense is championship grade for the first time since 2007. It hasn’t allowed a second-half touchdown in its last six games. We might actually get the Full Gronk in the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

The Patriots rested, bubble-wrapped and handed rosary beads to tight end Rob Gronkowski on Sunday to make sure he was healthy for the playoff run.

With nothing but regular-season record-keeping to play for, the Patriots also mothballed wide receiver Julian Edelman, cornerback Brandon Browner, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, right guard Dan Connolly and linebacker Dont’a Hightower.

If there is an area of concern about the Patriots headed into the postseason, it’s unexpectedly on Brady’s side of the ball. Don’t look now but the New England offense has been stuck in neutral this month. Counting Sunday’s disjointed glorified joint practice with the Bills, the Patriots offense scored two touchdowns on drives that began in their own territory in the final four games.

That’s a span of 46 drives, including kneel-downs. Brady was on the field for 40 of those possessions, including five on Sunday against Buffalo before he was relieved by wonderboy backup Jimmy Garoppolo.

The two touchdown drives that began on their own turf were Brady’s 69-yard touchdown pass to Edelman against the San Diego Chargers and the opening drive of the first half against the Miami Dolphins, an eight-play, 79-yard march.

Brady was asked whether the downturn in offensive production is the result of a lack of execution or teams wising up to the Patriots’ ways.

“That’s a good question,” said Brady. “I think it ultimately comes down to how well we execute. I think we’ve played some pretty good defenses and defenses that really challenge you. We’ll be challenged in a couple of weeks. Hopefully, we’re ready to meet the challenge.

“I would expect us to be at our best. That’s what this time of year requires. We’ll be playing a great football team, whoever it is. I think we’ve got a pretty good team. We’ll see where we’re at.”

Otherwise, they’ll have to win the new old-fashioned Patriot Way, relying on their revamped defense.

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