Patriots clinch AFC East, but Bills make a statement of their own

They’re still the New England Patriots.

Everyone tired of seeing the Patriots crash their Super Bowl Sunday party wants them to go away. People tuned in Saturday hoping to see some sign from the Buffalo Bills that there would be a change in the AFC East.

Not yet. The Patriots might not have a vintage team, but they’re still 12-3 and AFC East champions for the 11th straight season. They clinched the division with a very hard-fought 24-17 win over the Bills on Saturday. They had to come back in the fourth quarter, but how many times have we seen that? Rex Burkhead’s touchdown run with 5:06 left gave the Patriots the lead. A late defensive stand, after the Bills drove inside the 10-yard line in the final minutes, sealed the division title.

There could be a day soon when the Bills overtake the Patriots in the division. There were signs on Saturday of the Bills’ growth as a team. The gap between the Patriots and anyone else in the AFC East seems smaller than it has in years.

But the Patriots still aren’t ready to give up the crown. And even when the Bills led in the second half, everyone must have known that Tom Brady and his team would find a way to pull out a win.

Patriots got a test from Bills

Even in a loss, the Bills made a statement.

Early on, it looked like the same old AFC East vs. Patriots game. New England was able to dink and dunk down the field. Bills quarterback Josh Allen missed a few wide-open passes. The Patriots led 10-3 and it just seemed like a game we’ve watched before.

Then it changed. The Bills defense started to dig in. The offense hit a huge play at the end of the first half, with Allen throwing a perfect deep pass to tight end Dawson Knox to the 1-yard line, then offensive tackle Dion Dawkins catching a touchdown on a tackle-eligible play. John Brown caught a long touchdown against a Patriots defense that hasn’t given up too many big plays all season, and the Bills led 17-13.

The Patriots were in a true battle. The notion that Saturday’s game would decide the AFC East was overblown. The Patriots were set to clinch with a win, but could also win the division with a win next week at home over a terrible Miami Dolphins team. But it’s rare for the Patriots to not have a division title wrapped up already, and even more rare for a divisional rival to have the Patriots on the ropes in Foxborough.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 21: Kyle Van Noy #53 of the New England Patriots celebrates during the first half against the Buffalo Bills in the game at Gillette Stadium on December 21, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)
Patriots' Kyle Van Noy celebrates during the first half against the Buffalo Bills in the game at Gillette Stadium on Dec. 21, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)

Patriots come back in the fourth quarter

The fourth quarter was yet another example of the Patriots’ toughness.

They got a field goal to cut the Bills’ lead to 17-16. Then the defense got a stop and the offense marched on a long touchdown drive. Burkhead’s go-ahead touchdown, in which he ran right through two Bills defenders at the goal line, was a good example of New England’s will to win. Julian Edelman, who is dealing with numerous injuries and at one point in Saturday’s game went to the locker room, caught the two-point conversion to put the Patriots ahead 24-17. Most fans outside of Massachusetts don’t want to hear about it, but the Patriots’ ability to come through in tough situations is unmatched.

And still, the Bills weren’t done. Allen’s fourth down quarterback sneak with 2:51 left kept the Bills alive. He was stopped cold, but somehow moved to his left and dove for the first down. It was an impressive second effort.

A fantastic pass by Allen to Cole Beasley gave the Bills a first-and-goal situation. But the Patriots stood tall. They stopped Allen on a first-down run. Allen missed Knox in the end zone on second down and then New England sacked him on third down. A desperation pass to the end zone on fourth down with 1:05 left was batted down.

The Patriots clinched the AFC East with the win. They still are in line for the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a bye, with a small chance to pass the Ravens for the No. 1 seed. This isn’t a Patriots team that will blow out many teams, but everyone knows they can find ways to win when pressed into a tight spot. They did it on Saturday and we’ve lost count of how many Patriots games have followed a similar script through the years. The Bills might be coming, but they’re not there yet.

The Patriots might not be as great as they were at times through their historic dynasty. But they’re still the Patriots, and they’re not ready to fade away.

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

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