New England clinched its 11th straight division crown with Saturday's 24-17 win over the Bills. It's perhaps fitting that it came against Buffalo (10-5), which pushed the Patriots (12-3) about as much as any rival in recent years. No AFC East team has finished within a game of the Pats in nine years.
The Bills lost both meetings with the Pats this season by a single possession. Each team had already earned a playoff berth prior to Saturday's close encounter in Foxborough. New England rallied from a 17-13 deficit with consecutive scoring drives, and a goal-to-go stand in the final minute.
"It's good to see the fruits of a lot of labor, a lot of hard work," coach Bill Belichick said afterward. "I thought the guys really competed this week -- short week, knew the importance of this game and how difficult it is to play against Buffalo, and they stepped up to the challenge. Give the players credit. There's a lot of guys with a lot of mental toughness in that locker room, and they showed it today."
The Patriots can seal a first-round bye if the Chiefs lose to or tie the Bears on Sunday. New England hasn't played on Wild Card Weekend since 2009.
"I think it's pretty cool, you know?" quarterback Tom Brady said. "It's pretty cool. It's hard to do and it's a lot of effort, a lot of hard work, and a lot of people are just day after day coming in and sitting in these chairs and trying to do what's right for the team. It's a great reward, it's a great step for us and it's great to control the ability to do that too. To win and know that you win the division is pretty cool. Happy for us, happy for our team and our coaches."
Last season was the first this decade that the Patriots didn't win at least 12 games. They earned a top-two seed anyway and won another Super Bowl, their sixth in the Belichick-Brady era. This marks the duo's 17th division title in 19 years.
The league's defending champs have bigger goals, of course, but winning anything clearly doesn't get old for Belichick, who was already sporting a cap commemorating the division title during his postgame presser.
"It's great," he said with a sly grin. "I love wearing this hat."