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Rex Burkhead

Rex Burkhead

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Quarterback Tom Brady’s emotion was at red-hot levels as evidenced by a sideline outburst in the first quarter, but with his on-field performance not quite at peak levels early, the New England Patriots needed to support him Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.

The two-headed running back attack of Dion Lewis (15 carries, 92 yards) and Rex Burkhead (12 carries, 78 yards, 2 TDs) helped, and so did a bend-but-don’t-break defense that decisively slammed the door in the red zone.

Add in what seemed to be a halftime alteration to get tight end Rob Gronkowski (nine catches, 147 yards after having two catches for 28 yards at the half) more involved in the second half, and it was a formula that produced a 23-3 victory at New Era Field. The result extended the team’s road winning streak to 14 games and puts the Patriots one step closer to winning the AFC East championship.

Improving to 10-2, the Patriots will clinch the AFC East with either a Bills loss to the visiting Colts next Sunday or with a win over the host Dolphins on ESPN’s Monday Night Football.

When the highlights of Sunday’s win are replayed, Brady’s sideline outburst will be hard to miss.

“Just football. We’ve been around each other a lot. I love [offensive coordinator] Josh [McDaniels] … two competitive people and it’s just the way it goes,” Brady explained.

The exchange came after the first drive of the game stalled when Brady didn’t spot a potential open target and instead fired an incomplete pass in the other direction. As Brady walked to the sideline, McDaniels appeared to say something in his direction and Brady reacted passionately, yelling back at McDaniels.

Jack Easterby, whose official title with the Patriots is character coach/team development, stepped between them to extinguish the fiery outburst. And soon enough, Brady and McDaniels were sitting side by side on the bench going over adjustments.

This is nothing new for Brady, whose 2011 shouting match with then-offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien in Washington is often remembered as an example of the passion and competitiveness.

As Brady and McDaniels worked through the issues, the defense gave them plenty of cushion to figure things out (it was 9-3 at the half). Sparked by Eric Lee’s interception in the end zone to thwart the Bills’ impressive opening drive, the unit held quarterback Tyrod Taylor and running back LeSean McCoy in check to continue its impressive momentum.

“Defensively, any time you can hold a team to three points, you feel pretty good about that,” coach Bill Belichick said. “This is just one of those games where you have to grind it out against a tough football team on the road. I thought our guys did that, all 46 of them. Everybody needed to step in there and hold part of the load, and they did.”

The Patriots have allowed an average of 11.87 points per game during their eight-game winning streak. This effort was particularly impressive because it came without leading sacker Trey Flowers, who missed the game with an injury to his ribs, and with linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who is usually an every-down player, playing a limited role.

With the defense doing its thing, and Lewis (44 yards) and Burkhead (31) ripping off explosive off-tackle runs to spearhead the ground game, it had an old-school AFC East-type of feel to it.

“It was great. Those guys have been really running great all season. It’s been a huge thing for our offense. I don’t think you can just count on us dropping back 50, 60 times and throwing the ball,” Brady said. “I think you really have to defend the running game and our play-actions come off that. We had a bunch of good plays off play-action, so you have to be able to do both. We were able to do both.”.

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