FOXBORO - It's the No. 2 seed, and that's fine with the New England Patriots.
After rushing 267 yards and picking up another 189 on kickoff returns on a track that could have resembled a vacation afternoon on a slip'n'slide toy, the Patriots - 34-20 victors over the Buffalo Bills - can rest for a week and let the AFC wild-card round take its course before the season resumes at Gillette Stadium.
"It's huge, just to have that week there to recover," said defensive end Rob Ninkovich. "When you can get that, it definitely helps your team as far as getting as healthy as possible. I'm happy that we were able to get the win and give ourselves a little time here to recover."
The Patriots may not lead the league in players on injured reserve or in cumulative bruises, but the 2013 regular season, completed at an impressive 12-4 and 8-0 at home, was a testament to their mental toughness and the uncanny ability of Bill Belichick and his personnel staff to find players to fill the holes created by catastrophic injuries to stalwarts such as Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Rob Gronkowski.
Not surprisingly, as he expressed pride in his players' performances, Belichick still downplayed what it took for the Patriots to overcome such losses and still earn one of the top two seeds in the playoffs.
"Everybody has to deal with something," he said. "We'll have everybody ready to go and whoever is called on, if we put them out there, we have confidence in them. We wouldn't put them out on the field if we weren't confident in them."
Quarterback Tom Brady underscored the importance of the "next man up" philosophy when he noted the solid play of the offensive line despite a major bit of in-game shuffling that saw left guard Logan Mankins go out briefly with an ankle injury.
"There are a lot of tough guys and that's what it's all about," said Brady (14-24, 122 yards, one TD, one interception). "That's what the football season is all about - guys playing through injuries and giving everything they've got. There's nobody tougher than Logan Mankins, so you know when he's getting helped up, you know he's not feeling good, but he fought through it. There's nobody that I've ever played with that is as tough as him."
The feel-good story of the day was running back LeGarrette Blount, the 250-pounder who was made an unlikely kick returner earlier in the year, and proved the critics wrong by ripping off returns of 83 and 62 yards to set up 11 of the Patriots' 18 fourth-quarter points.
"He's not a fullback out there," Belichick said. "He's got some quickness, got good vision, got excellent elusiveness in the secondary which is kind of what kickoff returns are. I think that the big thing for him is judging the ball and handling the ball on those kicks because he's hasn't had a lot of experience doing it, but he's worked hard at it."
Blount also gained 189 yards on 24 carries (most since Robert Edwards gained 196 in a game in 1998), one of many superlatives on a day where standing water was more visible than plastic grass on the Gillette Stadium playing surface.
Julian Edelman brought his season receiving totals to 106 catches and 1,056 yards with nine catches in 11 targets for 65 yards. Shane Vereen also recovered enough from a groin pull to contribute three catches for 42 yards and a TD, and the offensive line endured its wounds to keep Brady upright for all but one play.
The defense did its job as well, dropping Bills' quarterback Thad Lewis four times for 23 yards in losses. Although there were moments in the fourth quarters when the Bills fought back after the Patriots' scores, they just didn't make enough plays to change the outcome.
"Things like that are tough," Lewis said, "and it just shows you how close you are, but you're not there yet. If we can get to being close and being able to convert and finish drives and finish games then I know our record would be a whole lot different than what it is now."
The Patriots built a 16-3 halftime lead on three field goals by Stephen Gostkowski (who broke Gino Cappelletti's team record for points scored in a season, now 158) and a dazzling 36-yard TD run by Blount with 12:14 left in the second quarter.
The Bills threatened to make it a game when T.J. Graham caught a 12-yard pass from Lewis with 1:29 left in the third quarter, but Blount presented the Patriots with a great opportunity when he bobbed and weaved his way 83 yards to the Buffalo 20 with the ensuing kickoff.
They almost had to settle for a field goal, but the Bills' Marcell Darius (who had been benched for the first half for missing a team meeting) jumped offsides on the fourth-and-1 play at the Bills' 11, giving the Patriots a first down. On the next play, Brady found Vereen in the end zone and Edelman caught the two-point conversion for a 24-10 lead with 14:56 left.
The Bills responded with a 10-play drive, including a 37-yard pass to Fred Jackson that set up Jackson's 5-yard run with 10:20 left. But again, Blount came to the rescue with his 62-yard return to the Bills' 40. Steven Ridley's 15-yard run helped set up Gostkowski's 35-yard field goal with 7:57 left, putting the Patriots up 27-17.
A 37-yard field goal by Buffalo's Dan Carpenter with 3:26 left was followed by the obligatory onside kick, but Nate Ebner was there to scoop it up - and two plays later, the "Blount instrument" of the Patriots' running game raced for 35 yards and another score to put the game away.
The next time the Patriots take the Gillette Stadium field, it will be the 8:15 p.m. game on Saturday, Jan. 11 - just two wins away from a berth in Super Bowl XLVIII.
"You play hard to put yourself in a position and we're here now in this position," Brady said. "It's a good spot to be in, but we've got to go out there and take advantage of it. Anything can happen if you don't go out there and give it your best. We're going to try to be our best in a few weeks."