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Patriots heard the noise and responded in a big way

Did you hear it?

No, not the sound of cash registers and holiday shoppers bumping into each other all over the region

We’re talking about that a huge sigh of relief eminating from Foxborough, Mass.on Saturday night.

The New England Patriots locker room emptied fairly quickly after their 24-17 AFC East clinching win over the Buffalo Bills, players wearing their AFC Champions hats and most likely looking to celebrate with families and friends. There were smiles all around, and their steps were much easier than the last few weeks because it seemed like a huge weight had been lifted off their shoulders.

Patriots coach Bill Belichcik even came into his post game press conference wearing an AFC East Champions hat. Belichick was much more chipper than usual.

“It’s great,” he said. “Love wearing this hat.”

That’s because maybe an hour earlier it looked like he may not be able to wear it, as the Patriots went into the fourth quarter trailing the upstart Buffalo Bills 17-13. The AFC East was not the simple gimme that it’s been most of the last 11 years – almost 19 years, really – for the Patriots. Perhaps we as fans have a different view of things as the players, as Elandon Roberts – the best post game interview of the season the other night – stressed, “Never take it for granted.”

This time the fans, you could tell, didn’t. It’s been a different season, as the Patriots have struggled offensively. Last week’s win over a one-win Cincinnati team almost didn’t count in anyone’s mind as a recovery. The Patriots needed to prove something to themselves, it seems, with a competitive win over a competitive team in a competitive game.

The Patriots want their playoffs to start now, because it seems that that’s when they are at their best – when the pressure is the most. When the naysayers are the loudest. When the odds aren’t solidly in their favor any longer.

“Essentially win two games, we get the first week of the playoffs off, so essentially that’s a playoff win for us,” said Patriots safety Devin McCourty, who knows nothing but AFC East titles in his career. “I think that guys understand that. We’ve developed that mentality for here on out, we need to have a mentality of win or go home.

“Every game we play in is a playoff game and if we don’t win, it kind of hurts us. I thik we understand that, we put a lot into this game this week and now we’ve got to use this extra day to rest up.”

But you could sense, the Patriots may have wondered just that little, little bit whether they could answer the challenge. Maybe they heard the noise.

Belichck talked after the game how mentally tough his team was – and needed to be to win this game.

“Sometimes when things aren’t going your way, the way you want them to go, you still do what;s best for the team and do what you can to make the team better,” Belichick said when asked what mental toughness meant to him. “We have 53 guys in there and a coaching staff that does that on a daily basis, so that’s all you can ask for.”

The Patriots haven’t had this type of team before, one that is motored by a dominant defense with an offense that has few bright spots. They haven’t had this uncertainty over quarterback Tom Brady’s future before. There is the feeling that if this is it for Brady in Foxborough, the Patriots have to make it a good outcome.

Buffalo’s time isn’t here yet. You wonder if quarterback Josh Allen can get better, because he will have to if the Bills are to have more chances to dethrone the Patriots. Allen’s problem is accuracy, as he showed in missing an open Dawson Knox in the back of the end zone in the game’s final minute, when a touchdown and extra point would have sent things into overtime.

“We’ll learn from it,” Allen said afterward. “It’s one of those games you learn from and if you don’t learn from it, it’s a complete loss.”

For the Patriots, it was a complete win – in terms of the reward, maybe not the path taken to get there.

“It certainly means a lot,” Patriots captain and special team standout Matthew Slater said. “If you look at the way things have been going for us this season, there’s been some adversity that we’ve had to deal with, but we found a way to respond to it. I’m proud of these guys and proud to be a part of this group.”

The Patriots gave themselves an AFC East title for Christmas.

Now let’s see what they will be able to celebrate as we get past New Year’s.

Tom King may be reached at 594-1251, or@Telegraph_TomK, or tking@nashuatelegraph.com