FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots (12-3) took care of business on Christmas Eve with a 37-16 win over the Bills at Gillette Stadium that kept the defending champions on track for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff picture.
But with the Steelers also winning in Week 16, New England will need to close out the regular season with another home victory against the Jets to ensure the postseason runs through Foxborough.
So while there was the usual post-victory joy in the locker room this holiday weekend, head coach Bill Belichick and veteran players were also aware that the first-half action against Buffalo -- a game that was tied 13-13 at the break -- needs to be cleaned up.
Defensively, that means cutting down on the big yards that opponents are finding on early downs and finding a way to get off the field on later downs. Obviously, the two issues are interconnected.
Holding Buffalo to 0-for-4 in the red zone and allowing just three field goals on defense is something to build on, but not to the point of ignoring some of the issues for a unit that continues to allow too many yards, both running and passing, and too many big plays.
"We needed it, I mean, because everything else wasn't really that good (against Buffalo) for us," defensive co-captain safety Devin McCourty said. "You know, third down was bad - it probably got a little better in the second half. We got some stops. But overall, second down was bad, again, so we needed to play good in the red area because we were letting them down there a lot. So, we always talk about that. If we can keep seven points off the board, it will continue to give us a chance in the game, and that's what you saw - tied game at halftime and just consistently playing well in the red area gave us a chance to eventually pick it up and get it going and getting our offense better field position, so they were able to take advantage and go score touchdowns. Usually in the NFL, that's the difference. When you can make a team kick field goals and you can score touchdowns, complement each other, you usually get wins."
Offensively, the Bills game saw Tom Brady throw an interception for the fifth straight week, this one a pick-six for Buffalo safety Jordan Poyer that was the only touchdown of the day for the visitors. Brady's turnover streak, his longest since 2002, is another area that certainly is less than ideal as the postseason approaches.
"Nobody wants to throw interceptions. Tom doesn't want to throw them. Nobody wants to throw them. Look, there's things in the game that come up every game that we need to improve on and correct offensively, defensively and in the kicking game," Belichick emphasized. "I don't think that will ever change. We always want to take care of the ball. We always want to score points when we send the offense on the field. We always want to stop the offense when we send the defense on the field. We always want to create field position or score points when we send the special teams out on the field. So, there's no other reason to send them out there. We'll just keep working and do a better job."
While New England will focus on beating the Jets to close out the season and lock up the No. 1 seed - while trying to clean up issues on both sides of the ball - the Patriots are also happy to be in very good position as they try to close out a successful regular season.
"It's good to have 12 wins. Hopefully, we can get another one next week," Belichick declared after the tale-of-two-halves win over Buffalo.
"Twelve-and 3 with one game to go. 13-3 would be a pretty great year. We've just got to finish strong," Brady echoed.
REPORT CARD VS. BILLS
--PASSING OFFENSE: B-minus - Tom Brady shook off a shaky first half that included an interception for the fifth straight game, this time a pick-six to safety Jordan Poyer. Brady finished completing 21-of-28 passes for 224 yards with two touchdowns and the one pick for a 106.8 passer rating. Rob Gronkowski led the targets yet again, tying for a game high with five catches for a team-best 67 yards including a pretty spinning, one-handed touchdown.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: A - With both Rex Burkhead and James White inactive to injury, Dion Lewis stepped up with career highs of 24 carries and 129 yards (5.4 average) and one touchdown. Mike Gillislee was active for the first time in seven games, chipping in six attempts for 28 yards and a touchdown for a New England attack that churned out 36 carries for 194 yards (5.4 average). It was the third time in five games the Patriots have rushed for 190-plus yards.
--PASS DEFENSE: C - New England's former Pro Bowl corners, Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore, struggled dealing with Bills pass catchers Deonte Thompson and Kelvin Benjamin, respectively. Thompson had four catches for 91 yards, including an early 46-yarder against Butler. Benjamin used his size to beat Gilmore for five catches and 70 yards. But the Patriots were able to garner six sacks on Tyrod Taylor, who completed 21 of 38 throws for 281 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions for a 78.9 rating.
--RUSH DEFENSE: C - New England's porous run defense let LeSean McCoy once again get his yards as the Bills back ran it 17 times for 71 yards (4.2 average) even with Buffalo facing a growing deficit in the second half. In the first half, before the score got lopsided, McCoy and Taylor combined to run 11 times for 53 yards. With no longer than nine yards at that point, they were getting consistent gains against New England's undermanned front seven. DT Malcom Brown was a clear bright spot, though, with six tackles in the middle while Marquis Flowers had a career day on the edge with 10 tackles, including 2.5 sacks.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: B - Neither team made any big plays or big mistakes in the kicking game. Stephen Gostkowski hit his field goals from 21, 40 and 34 yards. Ryan Allen punted one for 44 yards with no return. Danny Amendola had returns of 9 and 10 yards on his punt chances, while Lewis had 20 and 23 yards on two kickoffs. The Bills chose to keep six of Gostkowski's kickoffs near the goal line in the end zone for touchbacks and garnered just 13 and 19 yards on two returns. It was a solid but unspectacular day on special teams.
--COACHING: B - Though many wondered if Bill Belichick's team might be in line for a Christmas Eve letdown against Buffalo with New England coming off its key, emotional win a week earlier in Pittsburgh, the Patriots shook off a shaky start to cruise to victory. Offensively, Josh McDaniels put a heavy load on Lewis and the undersized back answered with a pair of touchdowns including a somewhat rare screen-pass score in the red zone. Defensively, Matt Patricia's unit did a solid job corralling Taylor to the tune of six sacks. The second half was far better than the first, but overall it was more than enough to get the job done in all three phases.