FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Tom Brady doesn’t look like the same force of nature that’s led the New England Patriots to eight Super Bowls and five championships, owning the Buffalo Bills like no other opponent along the way.
The 41-year-old future Hall of Famer, coming off back-to-back losses in December for the first time since 2002, put forth perhaps his worst performance in a victory in his illustrious NFL career during the Patriots’ 24-12 triumph against the Bills on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
Brady completed 13 of 24 passes for a measly 126 yards, a touchdown, two interceptions and a 48.3 passer rating. It was his fewest passing yards since 2013, his lowest passer rating in a victory, well, ever. And even the touchdown was fluky, with Julian Edelman taking a short fourth-down pass 32 yards to the end zone, slipping an attempted tackle by Rafael Bush and Jordan Poyer along the way.
Edelman appeared to have been tackled at the 15-yard line, but he rolled over the Bills’ defenders without a knee touching the ground and kept going, giving the Patriots a 21-6 lead with 5:05 remaining in the third quarter.
“Limiting somebody like Tom Brady to what he had, we got some turnovers off of him and all that stuff, it’s huge,” Bills safety Micah Hyde said. “But at the end of the day, we’ve got to stop all their weapons, which they do have a lot. They do. We couldn’t stop that.”
Edelman finished with a game-high 70 receiving yards on six catches. Rob Gronkowski was held without a catch on three targets. And Buffalo didn’t have to worry about Josh Gordon, the Patriots’ top deep threat who was slapped with another drug suspension last week.
Of course, Brady’s struggles throwing the ball didn’t factor much into the outcome.
Brady just needed to keep turning around and handing off the ball before celebrating the Patriots’ record 10th consecutive AFC East championship, the 16th in 18 years since Brady became the starting quarterback in 2001. No NFL team had won 10 consecutive division titles.
The Bills had no answers, allowing the Patriots to rumble for 273 rushing yards on 47 carries.
“What I know about (Brady) is he’ll do whatever he has to do to win the football game,” defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. “He’s a guy that, like he did today, if he has to turn around and hand the ball off 40 times to win the game, he thinks that’s the best opportunity to win, he will. If he needs to throw it 40 times, he will. So it comes down to execution.”
“He’s the type of player that’s willing to do whatever it takes to win,” linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “He’s not all about his stats. He’s about Ws and championships, and today obviously he didn’t have it in the passing game, but he just started running it. He said, ‘We can run it? Well, let’s just run it every play.’ ”
Sony Michel led the way with 116 yards and a score on 18 carries. Cordarrelle Patterson gashed the Bills on the jet sweep for 66 yards on four touches. James White added 41 yards and a touchdown on eight carries. Rex Burkhead grinded out 39 yards on 13 touches.
You get the idea.
“We did a great job in the run game, and that was great to dominate all the way around,” Brady said. “Whatever it takes on a week-to-week basis, I think that’s what we’ve got to do. We didn’t have our best game in the pass game, but we won. So, I think everyone’s feeling pretty good about winning.”
Coupled with the Eagles’ 32-30 victory against the Texans, the Patriots moved into position for a first-round playoff bye, leapfrogging Houston for the second seed in the AFC based on a head-to-head tiebreaker with one week remaining in the regular season.
The Patriots host the Jets next week, while the Texans host the Jaguars.
That first-round bye is critical.
The Patriots are undefeated at home this season, but just 3-5 on the road, including victories against the Bills and Jets, teams with rookie quarterbacks looking forward to the day Brady steps away from the game.
Brady is under contract for one more season, but has said he wants to play until he’s 45.
Whether he can go another four years remains to be seen.
“I think he was executing the same (as always),” Bills safety Jordan Poyer said. “I’ve played him six times and I’ve never beat him, which is frustrating, but I think he was running this offense the same way. Without Josh out there we knew they didn’t have a whole lot of deep threats, and so the ball was going to be out fast. We knew that, and that’s what they did.”
But as much as Brady’s stats on Sunday were jarring, the final score was more of the same.
New England swept the Bills for the second consecutive season and has won five consecutive games against Buffalo.
Brady owns a 30-3 record against the Bills, the most victories by a quarterback against a single team in NFL history. He’s thrown for more touchdowns (69) and 300-yard games (11) against Buffalo than any other franchise.
And yet this could have been a rare winnable game for the Bills, had the offense not been inept.
Josh Allen was 5 years old when Brady won his first Super Bowl, and the rookie’s first matchup against one of his childhood heroes was nearly as forgettable as Brady’s outing.
Allen finished 20 of 41 for 217 yards, a touchdown, two interceptions and a 52.6 passer rating. And those stats were padded in garbage time, with Zay Jones catching a 31-yard score with 1:17 to play.
The Bills managed just three points off three New England turnovers.
Buffalo will need to surround Allen with talent this offseason, as the franchise continues to retool its toothless offense.
Sooner or later, Brady will retire and this division will be up for grabs.
But for now, even when he struggles, that day isn’t here yet.