Rapid Reaction: Patriots 49, Bills 21

January, 1, 2012
1/01/12
4:18
PM ET

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Rapid reaction from the Patriots’ 49-21 win over the Bills in the regular-season finale:

What it means: The Patriots earn the No. 1 seed to give them home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. In a similar script to last week against the Dolphins, they fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter before charging back with 49 unanswered points. The defensive turnaround was impressive. Can the Patriots dig such a hole and expect to recover in the playoffs? That figures to be a question asked around New England in the coming weeks.

Brady over 5,000 yards passing: With a 39-yard touchdown connection to tight end Aaron Hernandez in the second quarter, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady went over the 5,000-yard passing mark for the season, becoming just the third player in NFL history to do so (joining Dan Marino and Drew Brees). Brady played through an injured left shoulder, which was a top storyline entering the game. He also tossed the 300th touchdown of his career, tying John Elway for fifth place on the NFL’s all-time list.

Tight end Hernandez stars: After he was edged out for a Pro Bowl berth by San Diego’s Antonio Gates, Hernandez put together a performance that showed he was worthy of the Pro Bowl consideration -- 7 catches, 138 yards, 1 TD, to go along with 26 yards rushing on two carries. Hernandez was the most dynamic offensive player on the field.

Gronkowski gets tight end record: Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski set the NFL record for single-season receiving yards by a tight end, with 1,327 yards. Gronkowski got the record on the Patriots' final drive, on a 22-yard catch, as the Patriots seemed to make a concerted effort to make sure he got the record over the Saints' Jimmy Graham. The game was well in hand, and the Patriots could have kneeled on the ball at that point, as backup quarterback Brian Hoyer was in the game.

McCourty at safety: In a defensive wrinkle, the Patriots used cornerback Devin McCourty at safety in their sub package, which they were in often against the Bills’ spread attack. McCourty had an interception in the fourth quarter. The 2010 first-round draft choice has had a tough season after making the Pro Bowl as a rookie and his time at safety sparks the question: Would the Patriots consider making it a more permanent switch? McCourty was injured on the Bills' final drive (looked like his leg), so his status will be something to monitor in the days to come.

Chung and Spikes return: The Patriots’ much-maligned defense got some reinforcements in the form of safety Patrick Chung (foot) and linebacker Brandon Spikes (knee), both of whom returned after missing the previous seven games.

Johnson benched for Bills: The Bills benched receiver Stevie Johnson after his unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for lifting up his jersey after a first-quarter touchdown. Johnson had written “Happy New Year” on his white shirt under the jersey.

Belichick's record: The Patriots finish the season at 13-3, with Bill Belichick becoming the first coach in league history to lead a team to 13 wins in the regular season five different times.

What’s next: The Patriots will be off next weekend as the playoffs begin. The Bills close the season at 6-10.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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