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FARINELLA: Patriots earn a bye - The Sun Chronicle : Patriots

FARINELLA: Patriots earn a bye

Pats earn week off heading into playoffs

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Posted: Sunday, December 29, 2013 11:45 pm | Updated: 3:02 pm, Mon Dec 30, 2013.

Neither snow (none of which fell upon Foxboro, thankfully), nor rain (plenty of which did) nor gloom of night could stay the Patriots from their appointed rounds Sunday.

Playing in an old-fashioned gully washer that created pools of standing water on the Gillette Stadium FieldTurf by the third quarter, the Patriots earned the No. 2 seed in the upcoming AFC playoffs - and the coveted week off before their business resumes - by defeating the Buffalo Bills, 34-20.

It's been one of the more memorable runs to a playoff berth in Bill Belichick's storied tenure as the Patriots' coach, accomplished as it has been with many of the team's best players on crutches or similarly rehabilitating various injuries, or playing through nagging pain at the very least. Nobody can say the Patriots backed into this playoff berth, or cheated their way to it. This was earned though the hardest of hard work, through the full utilization of blood and sweat, if not tears.

And now, at least a few of the walking wounded will have a chance to rest and heal.

"It's very important, man," cornerback Aqib Talib said of being able to skip the wild-card round. "We've got guys with little nagging injuries and stuff like that, so an extra seven days will be important for us."

Mark Saturday, Jan. 11 on your calendar now. The word after Sunday's game was that the Patriots' game in the divisional round, against an opponent yet to be determined, would be played that day. Hopefully, that will be enough time to heal for players like Talib, who has battled a hip injury for most of the year even as he earned Pro Bowl status.

Even as player after player fell by the wayside, however, these Patriots continued to find inspiring - and creative - ways to win. Their kicker flawlessly hit field goals under horrible weather conditions. Their 250-pound kick returner raced 83 and 62 yards to get his team into position for two important fourth-quarter scores. Even their Hall of Fame-bound quarterback punted his way out of a third-and-32 situation.

"Yeah, it could have been a lot better," Tom Brady said after the surprise punt with 7:49 left in the third quarter. "(Jim) Leonhard is a punt returner, so he fair-caught it and he made a smart play, but it wasn't a very good punt."

What the heck, it worked.

So did another decision by Belichick, one that had been made early in the year and had the pundits shaking their heads at the time.

Although the Patriots had signed Leon Washington away from the Seattle Seahawks to bolster their kick-return game, a training-camp injury to the aging speedster forced Belichick to look elsewhere - to 250-pound halfback LeGarrette Blount, obtained in a trade from Tampa Bay. Speed isn't usually on the resume of backs that size, but on Sunday, Blount ripped off returns of 83 and 62 yards to set up 11 of the Patriots' 18 fourth-quarter points.

Blount also gained 189 yards on 24 carries (the highest rushing total of a Patriot back since Robert Edwards picked up 196 in a 1998 game) and scored two touchdowns to earn high praise from a head coach that's normally guarded in offering accolades.

"Obviously it was a tremendous game by LeGarrette; clearly the best player on the field, he had a tremendous day," said Belichick.

Belichick joked that he made up his mind to swap Jeff Demps, the running back conflicted between his track-and-field career and pro football, to Tampa Bay for Blount after consulting with his "assistant pro personnel director" - Talib, who had been obtained from the Bucs the year before.

"Everything he said about him was absolutely right," Belichick said. "He's a good football player who loves to play, works hard and is a team player; great guy for the team in the locker room. He's been all those things."

"I told him he was a great teammate, a great locker-room player and you're going to see a lot of explosive plays from him," Talib said of his scouting report.

Sunday, Blount proved that true beyond a shadow of a doubt - just one of many pieces of a puzzle that have sent the Patriots to another high seed in the AFC playoffs.

Make no mistake, the No. 2 seed is a good thing. Maybe it's not the best situation in the world, but since they weren't going to get any help at all from the Oakland Raiders (who trailed No. 1-seed Denver 31-0 at halftime and lost 34-14), the Patriots were more than happy to accept the second seed. After all, two of their three Super Bowl victories since 2001 came when they had to travel to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship Game.

So, let the second season begin - but not before a welcome rest.

MARK FARINELLA may be reached at 508-236-0315 or via email at mfarinel@thesunchronicle.com. Read Farinella's blog, "Blogging Fearlessly," at thesunchronicle.com/blogs/markfarinella.

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