- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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LONDON -- They came across the Atlantic in search of a win, and in addition to that they may have found something equally important: a bond to carry them through the rest of the season.
The Patriots demolished the winless Buccaneers 35-7 at eye-opening Wembley Stadium on Sunday. Make no mistake, that result was most important.
Yet it was what happened in the 72 hours before the game -- once the buses were boarded at Gillette Stadium late Thursday afternoon -- that had various Patriots talking about how worthwhile this trip to London was, from team dinners, to visits to haunted houses, to appreciating pure history.
"We don't as football players often get to spend as much time together as we had," quarterback Tom Brady explained, after he had fired three touchdown passes to help the Patriots improve to 5-2.
"We all went out to dinner on Friday night, and just spending 10 meals together, and sitting on the plane together, I think that experience and getting to know each other will serve us well down the road. There are a lot of new players, and it's nice to come together and experience something like this. It's a unique bonding experience for all of us."
Brady took about seven of his teammates out for dinner Friday night -- a group including Wes Welker and a few offensive linemen -- and picked up the tab. Welker joked that when the group arrived, they were mistaken for a musical band. More out-on-the-town plans were in the works for Sunday night.
Meanwhile, safety Brandon Meriweather talked about visiting Big Ben on Saturday, and how he found a haunted house with a few of his teammates.
"Just to see some of them acting like little kids was probably the best part of my weekend," he said.
All along players had said this trip was all business, yet it turns out that exploring London and enjoying down time with each other was also a big part of the game plan.
The trip had some added meaning for coach Bill Belichick, a history buff who carved out time from his Saturday schedule to visit Churchill's war bunker, something he had hoped to do the last time he was in London a few years ago. Belichick was joined on the trip to London by his son Stephen, and called the visit to the war bunker a highlight he'll always remember.
"In 1940, when stuff was heating up, that was where Churchill stayed and all of his war advisers were, and all the maps and communication, the hotlines and phones and the scramble phones," he said. "That's where they worked, that's where they communicated, that's where they strategized, that's where they slept. It's so authentic. You see the charts, the maps and pins, and it's exactly the way it was when the war ended. It was really awesome."
The upbeat, camaraderie-laden, more-than-football tone on Sunday was a significant contrast from the mood surrounding the team two weeks ago in Denver after a heartbreaking loss. At that point, the Patriots were a 3-2 team in search of an identity.
Their confidence seems to be rising after decisive victories over two winless teams. They hope this punch-the-passport experience will provide a springboard for greater things ahead, similar to the Giants in 2007, when they traveled to London, built momentum, and later shocked the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
For now, they'll take a much-needed step back with their bye weekend ahead.
The Patriots are in the mix for the top spot in the AFC entering the iron part of their schedule: Miami, at Indianapolis, N.Y. Jets, at New Orleans, at Miami. After that stretch, we'll surely know more about these Patriots.
At this point, one thing is clear: The team boarding a plane Monday for a return to the States is a closer-knit group than the one that arrived here. And that's never a bad thing.
1dMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne