- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- When the New England Patriots took the field for pregame warm-ups Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium, their two defensive captains stayed behind in the locker room. Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo both were too sick.
The flu had ripped through parts of the Patriots' locker room during the week, sacking quarterback Tom Brady among others, and the training room had no vacancies, the result of a growing list of injured players after a prime-time, pad-crunching win over the Green Bay Packers.
The Patriots were in bad shape. They knew that the AFC East championship, a No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs were within their grasp with a victory over the Buffalo Bills. They also knew that they had something else to grab on to -- a long list of excuses.
"They were there, all built in for us," said a lethargic Mayo, tucked into a corner in the cramped visitors locker room. "It was cold, we were going to Buffalo, people were banged up."
But the Patriots didn't need any excuses, which means the team passed yet another impressive test in perhaps the most unpredictable season of Bill Belichick's 11-year coaching tenure. The Patriots are 13-2 and the main reason was on display Sunday.
"I think that we're mentally tough," Mayo said. "We battle through adversity."
Because of that, they have earned every bit of their AFC East title, even if the atmosphere seemed a bit subdued in the postgame locker room as players tucked championship hats and T-shirts into their travel bags.
"It was a tough week. I really have a lot of respect for our players," Belichick said. "We've got a bunch of guys with the flu and injuries, with bumps and bruises coming off that Green Bay game. We had a hard time practicing this week. They fought through it."
It was so bad that some sick players had to be given IVs.
"This New England Patriots football team showed a lot of guts today," said Wilfork, who was one of the gutsiest of all given his own illness. "We have a really competitive division, and for us to win it, I know a lot of people counted us out. All year we knew what we had in this locker room, how special this team could be."
The team's winning formula starts with mental toughness and excellent quarterback play. Tom Brady added another impressive record to his outstanding career Sunday, breaking the NFL mark for consecutive passes without an interception (Bernie Kosar held the mark at 308; Brady is now at 319). It would be a big upset if he doesn't win this year's Most Valuable Player award.
The Brady-led offense has taken care of the ball with unprecedented success this season. With just nine turnovers, the Patriots are on the verge of breaking the NFL record for fewest turnovers in a 16-game season, previously set by the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants, both of whom had 13 in 2008. Meanwhile, the growing-on-the-job defense has become a turnover-creating machine, as the Patriots -- after forcing seven turnovers Sunday -- now have a plus-27 differential on the season.
No statistic correlates more to winning and losing than turnovers, as evidenced by the Patriots' record with a positive turnover differential: they're 12-0 this year and 82-3 since the 2001 season.
For those looking for the primary reason for the team's success, start there. But, of course, there's more to the story.
The unheralded running backs run hard, the receivers might lack sizzle without Randy Moss but they're all about substance and the tight end combination has emerged as a bona fide force.
The defense still shows some vulnerability at times, but it's hard to imagine the patchwork unit on the field Sunday being the one that opens the playoffs.
The Patriots pieced their defense together in their 34-3 blowout win. It's never ideal when a player such as free-agent defensive lineman Landon Cohen is signed on Wednesday and starting on Sunday, or when someone like defensive end Eric Moore -- who played in the United Football League earlier this year -- is logging so many important snaps while playing out of position.
But this is part of the Patriots' 2010 trademark -- next man up. Few outsiders probably realized the Patriots had a right guard, Ryan Wendell, who was making his first career start Sunday. All the Patriots did was rush for a season-high 217 yards.
"It's been a theme all season," said tight end Alge Crumpler, one of the team's captains. "We plug a guy in and the guy comes in and plays well. That's what this team has been all about."
Asked what he learned about his team on Sunday, Crumpler shook his head.
"I already know enough about this team," he responded. "I know if we prepare well, we're good enough to beat the team we're playing."
The results have proven that to be true, yet players clearly still want more. In the postgame celebration, Belichick's message to players was described as one of appreciation for their efforts, but one that highlighted that their work is not yet done. He told them to "stay humble and stay hungry."
He could have thrown in a "get healthy" for good measure.
To win the AFC East title given the obstacles they faced speaks volumes about the Patriots.
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