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Patriots' offense finds identity in division-clinching win over Bills

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It ended almost exactly as it began, with an off-target throw to the end zone by Josh Allen. Oh so close and then nothing, the story of New England Patriots opponents for nearly two full decades. It was not to be after an early turnover gave the Buffalo Bills a prime chance to take a touchdown lead, and not after a final heave under pressure, the ball hanging in the air as New England held its breath, until J.C. Jackson could leap in front of Cole Beasley and bat the tying touchdown bid away.

The torch may eventually be passed in the AFC East and with the Patriots looking vulnerable for much of this season, maybe soon to Buffalo. But not quite yet. With the offensive line finally giving Tom Brady time to operate, his unfamiliar receivers catching passes, and the running game chewing yardage, the offense inched toward functionality and the Patriots looked the best they have all season against a quality opponent in beating the Bills 24-17. The victory clinched an incredible 11th straight division title, the 17th in the 18 seasons Brady has been healthy.

That history is daunting for opponents, and we have watched them wilt under the weight year after year. The Bills did not show fear of the Patriots, which should serve as a warning to whichever division champion will have to host them in the wild-card round. But in a more immediately nerve-wracking development for the rest of the AFC, the Patriots won on a day when their defense did not force a turnover, when even Defensive Player of the Year candidate Stephon Gilmore made a rare mistake and seemed to lose a receiver to allow a touchdown, when the offense seemed to finally find an identity.

Bill Belichick, as ebullient as you'll ever see him at this time of year, noted how much he loved wearing his new division champion hat. He also, in the space of a few short answers, managed to sum up this team: "not always perfect," "a lot of mental toughness," and "great team effort."

We'll add another one: good enough.

Not much about this season has been perfect for the Patriots. They cycled through receivers and Brady has repeatedly allowed his pique with the sputtering offense to show. His elbow is aching and he wore an ice pack on it after the game. And the Patriots have lost to every other AFC division champion. This was as close to a must-win as the Patriots get in the regular season, a playoff game before the playoffs. Not just to win the division, but to keep alive the chance to get a first-round bye, which this banged up team -- particularly Brady and Julian Edelman -- badly need.

There were a few moments in the game that indicated the resilience that has marked this weird, circuitous, frustrating season. The Patriots dominated the first half, but for a late lapse that allowed the Bills to drive for a stunning touchdown in 33 seconds to tie the score and leave Gillette Stadium silent. In the second half, Edelman went to the sideline for a concussion check after he was called for offensive pass interference. He insisted later he tried too hard to sell that he had been interfered with by lying motionless for a few seconds, only to land himself in the medical tent. He was off the field for almost a full quarter and the offense, contrary to expectations, kept moving. There were runs by Sony Michel, a catch by Jakobi Meyers, another by Rex Burkhead. When Edelman finally returned intact on the next drive, he and Brady connected for a catch-and-run of 30 yards to start what turned out to be the winning touchdown drive.

"A good offense, everybody has to be able to produce," Brady said. "We just did a good job of that today. Got to make them defend everybody."

The Patriots thrived late last season on the doubts of those who thought their offense was not that good as it morphed into a running attack, allowing the defense to become the dominant feature of the team. But when Brady was asked if he can get motivated from the much-louder doubts that have encircled the team and even specifically him this season, he demurred, as if he knew that there had been plenty of reason for people to doubt them.

"I don't think too many of us thought about the season," he said. "We're trying to grind our way through it."

They finally seem to be drilling out on the other side. The offensive line, an injury-riddled mess all season, has settled down and Brady's early sharpness -- he completed his first 10 passes -- was the result. The running game, nonexistent for most of the year, came up with 143 yards, giving the Patriots almost 18 more minutes of possession than the Bills had. Brady was able to complete the occasional pass to Ben Watson and Matt LaCosse, Mohamed Sanu Sr. and N'Keal Harry. And Edelman and Burkhead were the reliable options. Will it be enough to outgun Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson in the playoffs? Maybe not or maybe not yet. But the Patriots needed it right now against the Bills and finally got it.

The Miami Dolphins do not figure to offer much resistance in the Patriots' quest for a bye -- a win next week secures at least the second seed. But the solutions the Patriots found on Saturday are good only if they can resonate deeper into the winter.

Brady sounded cautious after the game, which at least was an improvement from the weekly brusqueness the struggles had produced. The search for this kind of performance and victory had been long and tiring. The Bills are gaining fast on the Patriots and they will be a dangerous wild-card team this year, and likely a problem for years to come. Even Brady's future is uncertain. If he sounds weary, who could blame him. It took until Week 16 for the season to seem more normal, for the Patriots to get the kind of big-boy victory to which they are so accustomed.

"One game doesn't always lead to the next," Brady warned. "You just have to keep building week to week on maybe some things we did that worked out."

Nobody knows if they will work when the Patriots will need them again. But the maddening relentlessness of the Patriots, the slogs through the 2000s, suggest they'll figure something else out if they have to. The Bills came to put a stake in the Patriots and claim the next generation of the AFC East. The Patriots aren't as spry as they used to be. But they aren't dead yet.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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