FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – The one player the banged-up New England Patriots could least afford to lose limped through most of Sunday’s game and had X-rays taken after it.

A day later, though, coach Bill Belichick said Tom Brady was “fine,” and the quarterback said he didn’t think his lower left leg injury was “too major.”

Brady has started 84 consecutive games, beginning with his first pro start on Sept. 30, 2001. And New England really needs him Saturday when it plays the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-4), a strong defensive team that has won more games than the Patriots’ last two opponents combined – the New York Jets (3-10) and the Buffalo Bills (4-9).

Brady was hurt less than 10 minutes into Sunday’s 35-7 win at Buffalo on his 3-yard scoring run, his first touchdown on the ground in two seasons. He was injured while diving into the end zone, where he was hit by linebacker Jeff Posey.

But he stayed in the game until Doug Flutie entered with 7:02 left and the Patriots leading 28-0.

“I don’t think it’s anything too major,” Brady said on his regular Monday appearance on WEEI-AM. “It’s feeling kind of what I expected this morning. It’s exactly like I got hit on it, a little stiff. The only time I get banged up, though, I’m running around.”

He said the injury was “below the (left) knee.”

No Patriots players were available to reporters Monday. The team policy is for Brady to talk with the media on Wednesdays.

The Patriots (8-5) can clinch the AFC East next weekend despite being hit hard by injuries all season. They can do it with a win at home Saturday or a Miami loss Sunday at home to the New York Jets.

They’re getting healthier, although six defensive backs and starting center Dan Koppen are on injured reserve and starting tackle Matt Light hasn’t played since being injured in the third game.

Running back Kevin Faulk missed eight games before playing the last two, while starting tight end Daniel Graham missed his third straight game at Buffalo.

After saying Brady was fine, Belichick reverted to his usual comment when asked on Mondays about the condition of a player: “The injury report will come out on Wednesday, the same as it is every week.”

There were plenty of signs during the game that the injury didn’t affect his play and that he wasn’t being more careful than usual.

Early in the second quarter, the Patriots ran a reverse that required Brady to block for Deion Branch, then the quarterback ran a 3-yard sneak for a first down. His throwing motion didn’t seem to be affected – after the injury, he completed 23-of-29 passes for two touchdowns.

Brady was penalized for a crackback block, nullifying Branch’s 10-yard run. The quarterback even stuck out his throwing arm to try to slow down the defender.

Belichick saw no reason for the two-time Super Bowl MVP to be cautious on the play.

“If their job’s to block, they block. If their job’s to tackle, they tackle,” Belichick said. “A football player’s a football player. You’ve got a job to do, you do it. There’s no class system. Everybody’s got to block. Everybody’s got to tackle.”

Belichick said the quality of the Patriots’ competition – not very good the past two games – doesn’t affect how he judges his team’s performance.

“It’s just about how you play that day,” he said. “I try to evaluate how we play regardless. It doesn’t really matter what the other team’s record was. It matters how we played and what the matchups were and how we did against them.”

AP-ES-12-12-05 1908EST

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