The Bills can sweep the rival New England Patriots for the first time since 1999 when they travel to Foxboro, Mass., on New Year's Day for their final game of the season.
Of course, emotions have been tempered a bit by the sobering fact that since defeating the Patriots 34-31 back on Sept. 25, Buffalo (6-9) twittered away what energy and optimism it had captured that day. A seven-game losing streak ensured a 12th consecutive season of missing the playoffs.
As for the Patriots (12-3), well, they're the Patriots and they can clinch home-field advantage in the AFC with a win over Buffalo.
Sweeping New England isn't the first thing on coach Chan Gailey's mind.
"You'd be able to win two in a row going into next year which is always good," he said of what's on his mind after his team snapped its losing streak with a spirited 40-14 victory over Denver last Saturday. "You are able to beat a good football team, which is another good thing if you can get that done. I don't worry about streaks. I don't worry about history. I worry more about the present and future than I do that."
The Bills' rousing comeback from a 21-0 deficit over New England at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Week 3 was engineered by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was 27 of 40 for 369 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions in that game, and a defense that intercepted Brady four times.
But since then, the fortunes of both quarterbacks and teams have done an about face. The win helped Fitzpatrick earn a $59-million contract extension but his play hasn't backed up the deal. For the year, he has thrown 22 TD passes vs. a whopping 19 interceptions.
The Bills didn't exactly stop Brady back in September. He threw for 386 yards and four touchdowns with Wes Welker catching 16 passes for 217 yards and two scores. Brady's turnovers were uncharacteristic. On the year, he has thrown for 4,897 yards, 36 touchdowns and 11 picks.
He's 190 yards behind NFL passing leader Drew Brees, who has 5,087 and broke Dan Marino's single-season record on Monday night. Brees faces Carolina on Sunday, also in a 1 p.m. start. It's possible Brady could pass Brees and capture the NFL mark against the Bills, who have one of the NFL's weakest pass rushes.
Then there's the matter of sealing home field.
"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."
Fitzpatrick was able to get on track against the Broncos to a degree, completing a safe 15 of 27 for 196 yards without a turnover. But he also threw some horrendous passes. The game was a blowout due to Buffalo's defense scoring twice off interceptions of Tim Tebow and special teams scoring on a Leodis McKelvin 80-yard punt return. The Bills' offense was 1 of 6 in the red zone.
"I'm not going to sit and complain and analyze everything that we did on offense, what we could've done better, the red zone stuff," Fitzpatrick said. "A win like this, especially when we lost so many in a row, enjoy the victory."
He would enjoy a win over New England even more, allowing him to go into the offseason feeling good about his standing as the team's undisputed No. 1 quarterback. Otherwise, Buffalo may be forced to draft a quarterback in April.
Meanwhile, it could be the final time wide receiver Stevie Johnson, a free agent, suits up for the Bills.
As for Gailey, he and GM Buddy Nix are facing another important offseason of retooling their roster.
"My confidence? My confidence never wavers," Gailey said. "Do I get down after a loss? Yeah, I do. You're always searching for how to get better and how to help the players be a better player. That's what you're trying to do. That's my job is to help put guys in position to try to be successful."
SERIES HISTORY: 103rd regular-season meeting. Patriots lead series, 60-41-1. New England has won 15 of the past 16 games. The Bills snapped a 15-game losing streak to New England with a 34-31 victory on Sept. 25 at home, rallying from a 21-0 deficit and winning on Rian Lindell's 28-yard field goal as time expired.
--RB C.J. Spiller, the team's first-round pick out of Clemson in 2010, has given the front office something to think about regarding handing veteran Fred Jackson a rich contract extension. Spiller, who has been starting since Jackson was lost for the year with a broken leg, has been very good the past two games, including recording his first 100-yard game against Denver (111 on 16 carries). On the year, he has 94 carries for 501 yards, a whopping 5.3 average. "C.J.'s playing extremely well right now," coach Chan Gailey said. "He's seeing things a lot better, is a lot more patient and he's a threat out of the backfield as a receiver. It's a great opportunity for him to show what he can do and he's taking advantage of that opportunity." Spiller figures to have another strong game this week vs. New England's 32nd-rank run defense, allowing 411.7 yards per game.
--Many NFL rookies not used to a 16-game season spread over 17 weeks hit "the wall." Bills' top pick Marcell Dareus, however, seems to be getting stronger and should make several NFL All-Rookie teams. "It doesn't seem like he's hit the wall and he's battling some being beat up a little," coach Chan Gailey said. "He's battling a couple of things so that's been impressive."
--Veteran LB Chris Kelsay's big game against Denver got better this week when the NFL awarded him a second sack, giving him a career-high three for a single game. His 30.5 sacks are 10th most in club history. The extra sack was awarded when what was initially ruled an interception that Spencer Johnson returned for a TD was ruled a sack/forced fumble by Kelsay and fumble returned for a touchdown. Buffalo's takeaways have come in bunches this year.
"It's frustrating when you lose an the way we've dropped several games in a row," Kelsay said. "Our coaching staff, all the players, put in a lot of time. I can speak for everybody in that room, this game, this means a ton to us so when you're not rewarded for that effort it's easy to get down. But the character of this team is the exact opposite of that. We came together and we're going to continue to work."
--Brandon Coutu, who has never kicked in an NFL game, will be the Bills kicker Sunday in New England. He replaces free agent Dave Rayner (pelvis) who had replaced Rian Lindell (shoulder). The Bills gave no reason for placing Rayner on injured reserve Wednesday, but he had been dealing with a sore pelvis. He was 4 of 6 on field-goal attempts in Saturday's win over Denver and was 10 of 15 overall for Buffalo. Coutu was most recently on the Jacksonville Jaguars practice squad. He was a seventh-round pick of Seattle in 2008.
--Veteran safety and team captain George Wilson has been named the Bills' 2011 Walter Payton Man of the Year. He was also selected in 2009. The prestigious award began in 1970 and honors players who demonstrate outstanding balance in their lives between civic and professional responsibilities. It's named for the late and great Chicago Bears running back. Wilson leads the Bills with four interceptions and is second in tackles with 96 despite missing three games with a neck stinger. In the community, his charity work is extensive, including efforts to help youth become physically fit, acting as spokesperson for the Bills Play 60 Campaign. Wilson will receive $1,000 for the charity of his choice from NFL Charities and is eligible for the league-wide NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year honor. Other Bills honored with the award include Fred Jackson, Lee Evans, Drew Bledsoe, Jim Kelly, Jerry Butler, Ted Washington, London Fletcher, Ruben Brown and Brian Moorman.
BY THE NUMBERS: 17 -- Number of players to record a pass reception this season, a new club record.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Yeah, it was good. You kind of forget the feeling because it's been so long. It was just good, just good for us moving forward, to build that confident, to know we can still do this. We can still play like that if everybody plays up to their capabilities." -- FS Jairus Byrd after the Bills snapped a seven-game losing streak with a 40-14 victory over Denver.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Bills will enter next season with three starting offensive linemen coming off serious leg injuries.
Eric Wood sustained an ACL tear earlier this year and went on injured reserve. Last week vs. Denver, guard/center Kraig Urbik and left tackle Demetrius Bell sustained what coach Chan Gailey confirmed were serious injuries that likely would require surgery. Urbik and Bell will not play in Sunday's season finale at New England.
What's it mean heading into next year for a unit that has generally performed well, tying for the fewest sacks allowed in the NFL with Tennessee with 21 with one game to go?
"I'm much more concerned about this game than I am next year," said Gailey. "I want to make sure that we get the five guys that are on the field knowing what to do and execute. It's a great opportunity for the guys that are going to play now to get some experience and show what they can do. That's what this last game's about. I'm not concerned about next year. I'm much more concerned about this ball game."
Colin Brown will start at center and rookie Chris Hairston at left tackle.
--OT Michael Jasper was promoted from the practice squad. The 6-4, 374-pound product of Bethel University was a seventh-round project pick last April. He'll play in reserve Sunday against New England.
--TE Mike Caussin was placed on season-ending injured reserve with a knee injury. He's the 17th player on the team's list.
--WR David Gilreath was signed to the practice squad. The NFL rookie played at Wisconsin and has spent portions of this year with the Colts and Rams.
--OL Jake Vermiglio was signed to the practice squad. The NFL rookie was in camp with Arizona and spent part of the regular season on Green Bay's practice squad. He's 6-5, 325 and played at North Carolina State.
--C Kraig Urbik and LT Demetrius Bell will miss the regular-season finale at New England, putting second-year pro Colin Brown and rookie Chris Hairston into the starting lineup. It's a tall task for Hairston, who will square off vs. sacks artists Andre Carter (10 sacks) and Mark Anderson (9.0) off the right edge of the Pats defense.
GAME PLAN: The Bills can't expect Ryan Fitzpatrick to match big plays with Tom Brady for a second time this year. Fitzpatrick was marvelous in rallying the Bills from a 21-0 hole in Buffalo's big September upset. But he's mostly struggled the past two months and Chan Gailey would be wise to run the ball often and more often against New England's 32nd-ranked run defense. Second-year pro C.J. Spiller has emerged as the weapon they hoped he'd be when the Bills drafted him ninth overall in 2010.
Defensively, the Bills forced Brady into four interceptions the first time around, but he also carved them up with four TD passes. If they don't find a way to slow down Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski, Brady (4,897 yards so far) will easily join Drew Brees in eclipsing the 5,000-yard barrier. New England ranks third in points scored at 30.9. The Bills could also use a big play from special teams and rookie kick returner Justin Rogers and punt return man Leodis McKelvin have been spectacular of late.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Bills SS George Wilson, who has had a nice season, vs. Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski, who has had a brilliant season with 15 TD catches -- Gronkowski burned Buffalo with seven catches for 109 yards and two TDs in the first meeting.
Bills CBs Drayton Florence or Aaron Williams vs. Patriots' WR Wes Welker, who has 116 catches for 1,518 yards -- Sixteen catches and 217 of those yards came against Buffalo in September.
Bills offensive line, which will feature two more new starters due to injuries, vs. Patriots multi-faceted pass rush led by DE Andre Carter (10 sacks) and Mark Anderson (9.0) and LB Rob Ninkovich (6.5).
Bills WR Stevie Johnson (72 catches, 964 yards, 6 TDs), who needs a big finish heading into free agency, vs. Patriots CB Kyle Arrington, who has seven interceptions.