Patriots win, out of playoffs after Dolphins victory

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- A year after Patriots perfection, New England will be sitting out the playoffs.

A season that began distressingly with star quarterback Tom Brady's injury, concluded just short of a postseason berth despite a stunning 11-5 record. New England's blustery 13-0 victory Sunday over the Buffalo Bills wasn't enough to get the Patriots in.

Miami won the AFC East by beating the New York Jets, and Baltimore took the only available wild-card spot when it beat Jacksonville in games later in the day.

"Eleven-and-five is a good record on paper, but it's not good enough," running back Sammy Morris said from Foxborough. "It's kind of a roller-coaster of emotions, winning the game, showering up and having to get on the plane and waiting to see what happened with the Jets game. So it was a high and a low in a matter of hours."

Added fullback Heath Evans: "The AFC East was a tough division this year with some tough teams, and you can't say enough about the Dolphins doing what they've done."

Though the Patriots did their part to avoid elimination, beating the Bills and overcoming fierce winds, they lost their bid at securing a sixth consecutive playoff berth. They are the first NFL team with an 11-5 record to miss the playoffs since Denver in 1985.

Braced for the worst before they headed to the airport, the defending AFC champions were at least content with closing the season with four straight wins.

"We can walk out of this locker room with our hats high," center Dan Koppen said. "We knew what type of team and what type of guys we had in this locker room coming into this season. Things happen and you've got to deal with it. And I think we did a pretty good job of dealing with it."

The Bills will settle for another long offseason after their third consecutive 7-9 finish and wonder how things could've been different had they built off a 5-1 start. Coach Dick Jauron's status is also uncertain, with his future to be decided during end-of-season meetings with team owner Ralph Wilson.

"It's been a trying season," receiver Lee Evans said. "We weren't used to winning at the beginning of the season, so you can learn as much as you can from that. Learning how to win is key."

The Patriots need no such lessons.

In defeating Buffalo for an 11th straight time, New England showed no signs of wilting when confronted by 55 mph winds that had the power to rip strips off nearby rooftops and tilt goal posts.

LaMont Jordan scored on a 2-yard run while Stephen Gostkowski hit two of three field-goal attempts. Matt Cassel's performance didn't go unnoticed in showing how capable he's been filling in since Brady went down in Week 1.

In going 6-of-8 for 78 yards, Cassel's 12-yard completion into the wind to Wes Welker on fourth down set up Jordan's score. He also hit Welker for a 14-yard pass on third down in helping set up Gostkowski's 23-yard field goal that put the game out of reach early in the fourth quarter.

The conditions were so bad that the goal posts had to be centered three times before game time, and again in the second quarter before Gostkowski missed a 26-yard attempt. Another stoppage came in the third quarter, when referee Gene Steratore had his hat blown off and was forced to chase it 20 yards downfield in front of a cheering crowd.

Bills kicker Rian Lindell had the wind at his back, but missed a 47-yard attempt, which started left and then hooked right.

The Patriots won with a rushing attack that produced 168 yards and ate up 32 minutes of the clock. Under coach Bill Belichick, they also proved to be the superior team in handling the conditions.

Belichick took advantage by taking the wind after winning the coin toss. He extended that advantage by calling several timeouts while New England had the wind at its back. And he even surprised the Bills by calling a quick kick in the fourth quarter, which Cassel hit for 57 yards and pinned Buffalo at its 2.

The Bills had no response, and seemed incapable of handling any adversity.

Their biggest miscue came in the final minute of the second quarter with Buffalo threatening to score. With no timeouts, 22 seconds left and facing third-and-5 from the Patriots 12, the Bills ran Fred Jackson up the middle for a 3-yard gain. Though it was initially unclear whether he got the first down as officials were late in spotting the ball, the Bills immediately sent out their field goal unit.

Buffalo, however, couldn't get a play off amid the confusion and didn't get any help from Bills tight end Derek Schouman and center Duke Preston. They were involved in shoving matches with Patriots players at the 5, making it impossible for the team to line up before time ran out.

Steratore said umpire Jeff Rice did, in fact, spot the ball with 9 seconds left, and added that Bills players were not restricted from returning to the line of scrimmage.

"I'm really proud of our team today," Belichick said. "Going 11-5, winning the last four, coming here today, I thought we played well as a football team."

Game notes
Patriots LT Matt Light did not return after hurting his shoulder in the fourth quarter. ... With one catch for 13 yards, Patriots WR Randy Moss upped his career total to 13,201 yards, moving to ninth in the NFL, 3 yards ahead of former Buffalo star Andre Reed. ... Jackson set career highs with 27 carries for 136 yards, playing in place of injured starter Marshawn Lynch (shoulder).