Eight straight wins, one 40-year-old QB and ... a dominant defense? Patriots just keep on rolling

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- It all comes right back to you, doesn't it, Buffalo? Like a musical holiday earworm. You go 11 months without hearing "Baby, It's Cold Outside," and then Dec. 1 hits and you realize you still know every blasted word of the thing, whether you like it or not.

The New England Patriots are the holiday earworm of the NFL, and especially of the Buffalo Bills. It's December, and Tom Brady's bunch has won eight games in a row -- the latest a routine 23-3 dismantling of their perennial punching bags here in Western New York on Sunday. New England is now 30-5 against Buffalo over the past 18 seasons -- a fact of which first-year Bills coach Sean McDermott was made well aware by local media all week. He didn't need reminding.

"They're a very good team," McDermott said when it was over. "I was mentioning to their coaches before the game, I felt like this is one of the strongest teams I've seen from them."

Which is saying something, of course. That's not like buttonholing the Los Angeles Rams' coaching staff and telling them this is their strongest team in a while. The Patriots have won 10 or more games in each of the past 15 seasons. If you're an especially good Patriots team, you have a chance to be one of the great teams of all time.

Time will obviously tell on that, but to watch the 2017 Patriots is to see something special -- and not just on Brady's side of the ball. Yeah, there he was hitting Rob Gronkowski nine times for 147 yards while the Pats rolled up 191 rushing yards on the Bills. But it's the other side of the ball that's really making people stand up and pay attention to this New England team. For whatever reason, even as it continues to lose key player after key player on defense, this Patriots team doesn't give up many points.

"It's a cliché, that whole 'next man up' thing, it really is, but it's so true here," Patriots safety Duron Harmon said. "[Coach Bill] Belichick and the guys just do such a good job of preparing everybody."

The Pats were prepared Sunday, but at the start, it looked as if it might not matter. Tyrod Taylor and the Bills bled more than seven minutes off the clock while marching the ball all the way to the New England 6-yard line on their opening drive. Things were going exactly to Buffalo's preferred script -- run the ball, eat up the clock, keep Brady on the sideline -- until Taylor threw an interception at the goal line, and that was that.

Oh, sure, it took a little while. The Patriots' offense sputtered a bit through the first half, mustering only three field goals and giving rise to a Brady tantrum directed at offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. New England led 9-3 at the half and things were still theoretically in doubt -- as much as a Patriots-Bills contest can be.

But Buffalo had bigger problems. Taylor sustained a knee injury on the opening drive of the game, and while he stuck it out into the fourth quarter, it was bad enough that he couldn't finish the game. Neither, of course, could a porous Bills run defense that has allowed a league-worst average of 177 rushing yards per game over the past five weeks. The Patriots methodically drove their way to two Rex Burkhead touchdowns in the third quarter, killing any remaining suspense, while the defense pitched a second-half shutout.

"After that first drive, things settled down," Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. "For us, it's about understanding what kind of game it is. So that first drive gives you an idea what you're up against. Getting a turnover down in the red area gave us some momentum."

That has been the key. During their current eight-game winning streak, the Patriots are allowing a league-low 11.9 points per game. They rank in the middle of the pack in yards allowed, but no team is keeping points off the board the way New England is. Part of the reason is that red zone efficiency. Over the eight weeks leading into this game -- the duration of their streak, which includes a bye -- the Patriots were the third-best team in the league at preventing touchdowns when their opponent was in the red zone. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Baltimore Ravens have been better at it.

"It's kind of a bend-don't-break mentality," Harmon said. "We know we're going to let some teams get yards on us. We wish that weren't the case, but it is. But we've been so good in that red area, it hasn't mattered. We know this game is all about points."

Critics will point out that the teams the Patriots have played aren't exactly the league's highest-octane offenses. But it's not as if the New York Jets, Los Angeles Chargers and Atlanta Falcons -- all victims of the current streak -- aren't scoring against anybody. Similar things were said about the 2016 Patriots defense, and it all worked out fine for them in the end.

What's amazing about this group is the way it has survived and thrived through attrition. Rob Ninkovich retired in camp. Dont'a Hightower is out for the season. Trey Flowers, the team leader in sacks, missed Sunday's game with a rib injury. The opponent still only got three points.

"Everybody's just trying to do their job," Harmon said, echoing one of Belichick's most famous catchphrases. "Of course, we would like to have a guy like Dont'a Hightower out there. Do we have somebody who's going to be Dont'a? No. He's an exceptional player. There are not a lot of Dont'a Hightowers walking. But I think it's about everybody understanding they're not going to be able to do what he does and focusing on, 'What can I do?' -- and you see it working."

Do you ever. The Patriots have a four-game division lead with four games to play. They're going to win the AFC East for the ninth season in a row and the 14th time out of the past 15 seasons. They have a Week 15 game in Pittsburgh that looks like it could decide the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, and if they win that then they'll have home games right up until the Super Bowl.

And none of that sounds at all strange to anyone, because it's December and you're humming songs you can't help but know by heart, and the Patriots are just part of the furniture this time of the year. You can't stop them, and this year, you can't score on them, either.