Patriots are back on top of AFC, after short rebuild

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BOSTON (AP) — Having watched the Patriots control the division for two decades, the Bills hoped that Tom Brady’s departure would clear the way for them to climb the AFC East standings and perhaps even contend for a conference title.

It did.

For one year.

After losing in the wild-card round in 2019 — Brady’s last game in a New England uniform — the Patriots plummeted to 7-9 last season and missed the playoffs for just the second time since 2002.

But they didn’t stay down for long, thanks to a free agent spending spree to surround Brady’s heir at quarterback: Mac Jones.

Since starting 2-4, the Patriots (9-4) have won seven straight games and hold the No. 1 seed in the AFC — just as they so often did on their way to six Super Bowl championships and three more conference titles.

They now have a two-game lead over the Bills — with the edge in the tiebreaker, thanks to Monday night’s 14-10 victory in the wind and snow in Buffalo.

“It’s not finished. We’re not even close to being done. We haven’t even hit our ceiling,” running back Brandon Bolden said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do and we are trying to get on top of it.”

WHAT’S WORKING

The Patriots ran for a season-high 222 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown by Damien Harris. He likely would have broken free for another score if he hadn’t pulled up with a hamstring injury after a 22-yard run in the third quarter.

Harris ran for a season-high 111 yards, and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson added 78 on a career-high 24 carries. The Patriots ran the ball 46 times, the most this season.

“Hats off to the offensive line for doing what they did, knowing that we were going to run the ball,” Jones said. “And just putting their nose in there every play and making it happen was incredible. I’ve never been a part of something like that.”

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The passing game. In fairness, they didn’t really try to fight the wind gusts of up to 55 mph — even in the quarters with the wind at their back. Jones completed two of three passes for 19 yards in all. (By comparison, Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen was 15 for 30 for 145 yards.)

“I haven’t seen that much wind, probably ever,” Jones said. “But it’s just a learning experience. But if I could practice in it once a week, that would be awesome.”

STOCK DOWN

Defensive back Myles Bryant was called for an unnecessary roughness penalty when he pushed Josh Allen along the sideline late in the third quarter. The penalty was widely panned — Allen hadn’t stepped out yet, and the “roughness” was more of a push.

But instead of fourth-and-1, the Bills had a first down at the New England 20 and kicked a field goal to cut the deficit to 11-10.

Bryant said he didn’t ask for an explanation from the referee.

“I just left it to the officials,” Bryant said. “They call what they call. I think personally I’ve just got to be smarter near the sideline, understanding what they’re looking for.”

STOCK UP

Bryant. He broke from his assigned coverage on Buffalo’s final play, a fourth-and-14 from the New England 18 just after the two-minute warning. Sliding over in the secondary, he knocked down Allen’s pass before it could get to Gabriel Davis in the end zone.

“Just understanding where the ball’s going to go in that situation,” Bryant said. “We sent some pressure and I knew he had to get the ball out quick. I think I should have picked it, and put the game away a lot quicker. But I was glad I was able to make the play and we were able to get a win.”

INJURED

— Harris jogged off to the locker room before halftime after appearing to tweak his hamstring in the second quarter. He returned to the game and then pulled up lame on his first carry of the second half.

— Linebacker Matt Judon was injured with 3:45 left after stopping Devin Singletary on a 17-yard run. Judon walked off on his own and returned to the game.

— Safety Adrian Phillips went down in the fourth quarter just before the two-minute warning. He remained on the field for some time, but after the game tweeted “THANK YOU GOD!!”

KEY NUMBER

3 — Jones threw just three passes, completing two for 19 yards. That broke the record for fewest attempts in a game that was set when Steve Grogan tried just five in a 3-0 victory over Miami in the Snowplow Game.

WHAT’S NEXT

The Patriots are off this week before playing the Colts in Indianapolis on Saturday, Dec. 18.

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More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://apnews.com/hub/pro-32 and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

Jimmy Golen, The Associated Press

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