No need to worry about whether anyone will get too much rest this weekend in anticipation of the playoffs, because the New England Patriots still have something to play for in their season finale against Buffalo.
Winners of seven consecutive games, the Patriots can wrap up the No. 1 seed in the AFC with a win, which would guarantee that the AFC's road to the Super Bowl will have to travel through Foxboro. A loss Sunday and win by Pittsburgh would push New England to the No. 2 seed by virtue of a tie-breaker (the Patriots lost at Pittsburgh earlier this season).
The good news is the Patriots have the perfect opponent in place for a signature victory; they haven't lost at home to Buffalo in 11 years, plus they're coming off a loss earlier this season at Ralph Wilson Stadium, which snapped their 15-game winning streak against Buffalo.
Suffice to say, there's plenty of motivation with the playoffs on the horizon. The Patriots know they're a much better team at home than they are on the road despite the fact they've lost their last two home playoff games. So, amidst all the talk of the upcoming Pro Bowl -- the Patriots had eight players selected to the roster -- the focus, as usual, is on the team's goals.
"We have other plans, hopefully, and we've got a big game this week," quarterback Tom Brady said. "We could really put ourselves in a good position if we win it. It's a team we lost to before, and we've got to go out and play well."
When these teams played in Week 3, the Patriots led, 21-0, in the second quarter, yet suffered a shocking, 34-31, loss that kept Buffalo unbeaten at 3-0 and handed New England its first loss of the season.
The tables have turned drastically over the past few months. The Bills have hit hard times, losing nine of their last 12 since that win over New England, and are officially out of the playoff race while the Patriots are on the precipice of wrapping up the No. 1 seed in the conference.
"They've been in a lot of close games all year -- some they've won and some they've lost," Patriots' head coach Bill Belichick said of the Bills. "They've been very competitive -- the Jets game is a good example; it came down to the last play. Our game came down to the last possession. They're in every game. It just comes down to who makes the plays at the end of the game -- them or their opponents."
This is eerily similar to the scenario the teams faced in the 2003 season finale at Gillette Stadium. That year, the Bills won their season opener against New England, 31-0, at home, but the Patriots put the finishing touches on their 14-2 season with an equally embarrassing 31-0 win over the Bills in the finale. The Patriots eventually went on to win the Super Bowl.
Whether this season ends in similar fashion remains to be seen, but the Patriots could assert themselves as the AFC favorite if they clinch home-field advantage through the playoffs. That's what's most at state Sunday, even though the players won't admit it publicly.
"It's not something that we talk about at all," Brady said. "I think what we've talked about is trying to beat a Buffalo team that's coming here and always plays us tough and a team that beat us earlier in the year.
"We're not thinking about anything beyond this weekend. I keep saying that every week. I know you guys probably think I'm full of crap, but it's a very short-term, focused team. We just try to stay focused on the present, and that's trying to have good practices and ultimately be prepared for our game on Sunday."
SERIES HISTORY: 103rd regular-season meeting. Patriots lead series, 60-41-1. New England has won 15 of the last 16 games against Buffalo with the lone loss coming earlier this season in Buffalo, snapping the 15-game win streak against the Bills that ranked third among all-time winning streaks against a single opponent in NFL history. Buffalo has never won at Gillette Stadium; the Bills are 0-9 lifetime in New England's new facility and haven't won in Foxboro since 2000.
--After wrapping up a first-round bye in the playoffs with last week's come-from-behind win over Miami, the Patriots are guaranteed to host their 14th home playoff game in the last 18 seasons.
In the 34 years prior to Bob Kraft's ownership, the Patriots hosted only one playoff game.
--Although Saints' QB Drew Brees has already surpassed Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record, QB Tom Brady has an opportunity to become just the third quarterback in NFL history to reach 5,000 yards in a season; he needs 103 yards in Sunday's finale to accomplish the feat.
--QB Tom Brady was named the AFC's Offensive Player of the Week after leading the Patriots to a comeback win over the Dolphins at home last weekend. Brady rushed for two touchdowns and also three for 304 yards. This is the third time this season he's won the award; he also earned Player of the Week honors in Weeks 1 and 2.
--Eight Patriots were selected to the AFC Pro Bowl roster: QB Tom Brady, DE Andre Carter, TE Rob Gronkowski, G Logan Mankins, WR Matthew Slater (special teams), G Brian Waters, WR Wes Welker and DT Vince Wilfork. The seven position players listed -- not including Slater -- were voted as starters.
This is the second year in a row eight Patriots have been voted to the Pro Bowl. For Gronkowski, Carter and Slater, this is their first invitation to the Pro Bowl.
--New England's 27-24 victory over Miami last week clinched a first-round playoff bye.
The Patriots can clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs if either of the following happen: 1.) A Patriots win or tie over Buffalo; 2). A Baltimore loss or tie plus a Pittsburgh loss or tie. The Patriots have earned the No. 1 seed three times (2010, 2007 and 2003) in the past nine seasons.
--QB Tom Brady has led the Patriots to 17 regular-season victories over the Bills, recording his highest regular season victory total over any opponent. Additionally, Brady has thrown for more touchdowns (43) against Buffalo than any other opponent.
--WR Wes Welker set the franchise record for most receiving yards in a season after adding 138 yards against Miami to push his total to 1,518 yards for 2011. He surpassed Randy Moss, who had 1,493 yards in 2007.
BY THE NUMBERS: 9 -- The number of AFC East division titles won by the Patriots since 2000.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You don't think about it much. You don't think about touchdowns or yards. What I like to think about is our offensive production and if we're getting the ball in the end zone, if we're winning games, if we're building on week to week and our performance, (and) if we're getting better over the course of the season. Those are the things that are most on my mind." -- QB Tom Brady on downplaying the significance of being voted to the Pro Bowl.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Journeyman DB Ross Ventrone was again a casualty of the transaction wire as the Patriots released him early this week to make room for newly acquired FB Lousaka Polite. Ventrone was subsequently re-signed to the practice squad -- the 21st transaction he's been a part of this season.
Ventrone joins DE Aaron Levarias, who was also added to the practice squad.
The moves made this week don't reflect much of what's going on in the locker room, though Polite could be a key addition if the Patriots implement a few new blocking schemes to compensate for the loss of offensive linemen Matt Light and Logan Mankins.
Polite hasn't played in four months, but is practicing with the team this week and could be on the active 45-man roster for Sunday's finale against Buffalo.
--This appears to be the week LB Brandon Spikes could return to the lineup. He's missed the last seven games due to a knee injury and was a definitive scratch last week after missing Friday's walkthrough, but he's no longer on the injury report and could be in the lineup Sunday.
--OL Donald Thomas figures to get another start at left guard in place of Logan Mankins, who suffered a knee injury replacing Matt Light at left tackle last weekend.
--TE Aaron Hernandez enters this weekend as a dark-horse performer considering the Patriots might need fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski to assume more blocking responsibilities due to so many injuries on the offensive line.
--With Shane Vereen nursing a hamstring injury, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis figures to be a major part of the game plan for Sunday; Green-Ellis was slowed by an illness last weekend, but is no longer listed on the injury report.
--Special teams' ace WR/DB Matthew Slater was one of eight players selected to the Pro Bowl this season, the first such accolade of his career.
--QB Tom Brady did not practice Wednesday, but his absence was not injury-related, which means he'll likely return by the end of the week and be ready for Sunday's season finale.
--OL Logan Mankins missed practice Wednesday due to a knee injury sustained last weekend and is a safe bet to miss Sunday's game.
--OL Sebastian Vollmer missed Wednesday's practice due to back and knee injuries and will likely sit out another week with the hope that he'll be ready for the postseason.
--OL Matt Light participated in a limited portion of Wednesday's practice, which is slightly positive considering he was a late scratch Saturday. There's a good chance Light will be ready for Sunday.
--DB Patrick Chung appears to be closer to returning to the lineup now that's he practicing on a limited basis despite a foot injury, but the jury is still out since he's been practicing recently and yet hasn't been in the lineup.
GAME PLAN: This is a matchup fit for a team like New England that can seemingly score at will. The Bills rank near the bottom of the league in the two most important defensive categories -- points allowed per game and yards allowed per game.
With the Patriots in position to wrap up the No. 1 seed in the AFC, it's hard to imagine Buffalo posing much of a threat defensively. This is a chance for Tom Brady to work on getting off to a better start, especially after last week's near-debacle in which the Patriots trailed by 17 at halftime.
The Bills are susceptible over the middle, which means there will be plenty of opportunities for either Aaron Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski to get open and make big plays. With some questions on the offensive line, Gronkowski could take on more of a blocking role, which means Hernandez would wind up the target of choice.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Patriots' LB Jerod Mayo vs. Bills' RB C.J. Spiller -- With Fred Jackson out of the lineup, Spiller has become the lead running back in Buffalo. In the last two games, Spiller has rushed for a combined 202 yards and two touchdowns. The Patriots had problems with Reggie Bush last weekend. Spiller brings a different set of skills to the table, but the early returns Sunday could be similar if the Patriots don't establish their defensive presence from the get-go.
Dolphins' DE/NT Marcell Dareus vs. Patriots' LG Donald Thomas -- Injuries to Matt Light and Logan Mankins forced the Patriots to insert the untested Thomas at left guard. The experiment had its moments; barring a quick return by Mankins, Thomas will either get another start Sunday or least play significant minutes to alleviate some of the pressure. This is an important match-up against the Bills' defensive line, particularly Dareus, who can line up as an end or play nose tackle.
Patriots' CB Devin McCourty vs. Bills' WR Steve Johnson -- Some would argue that David Nelson is the more consistent receiver in Buffalo's lineup, but Johnson is the most dangerous big-play threat. With that in mind, McCourty becomes a big target this weekend due to his struggles throughout the year. Until he comes up with a few plays here and there, opposing quarterbacks will continue to throw in his direction.