NFL Preview - Buffalo (6-9) at New England (11-4)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - No matter how many times the New England Patriots make the playoffs or win a division title, it never gets old for Tom Brady and company.
Brady and the Patriots hope to earn a little rest before starting their postseason run as they try to lock up a first-round bye in Sunday's home matchup with the Buffalo Bills, a club they have dominated for the last 13 years.
New England has had its share of ups and downs this season, one that began with the release of tight end Aaron Hernandez on June 26 after his arrest on murder charges. The Pats have also played the majority of the campaign without star tight end Rob Gronkowski due to injuries, while the likes of Vince Wilfork, Sebastian Vollmer, Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly have all found their way on injured reserve.
Still, the Pats rebounded from a loss at Miami on Dec. 15 with a 41-7 road thumping of the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday despite having already clinched the AFC East earlier in the day due to the Dolphins' 19-0 loss to Buffalo. That gave New England its fifth straight division title and 15th playoff berth in 20 seasons.
The 11-4 Patriots also remained a game behind the Denver Broncos for the top seed in the NFL and can clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a victory and a loss by Denver to the Oakland Raiders.
New England, a game up on Cincinnati and Indianapolis for the conference's second seed and a first-round bye, can do no worse than the second seed with a victory. The Pats could also clinch that first-round bye with losses by both the Bengals and Colts.
"Every year is special, but we've really earned it this year," said Brady following the win over the Ravens. "The NFL has a lot of stiff competition. Winning 11 games is very hard. We have faced adversity all year. Of course, other teams have, too. But our mental toughness has really gotten us through this."
Brady threw for 172 yards against the Ravens, including a four-yard touchdown pass to Shane Vereen in the first quarter. Running back LeGarrette Blount added 76 yards rushing with two scores and the defense contributed a pair of touchdowns.
"They're a good team and they play well at home," said Brady. "We've been talking about playing better on the road and we made a bunch of plays, especially on defense and special teams. It was a great win."
Chandler Jones recovered a fumble in the end zone for a TD and Tavon Wilson raced an interception 74 yards for a score with 40 seconds to play.
New England has won 18 of its last 20 games in December and Brady extended his NFL record with his 11th division championship. Denver's Peyton Manning is second with 10.
The Bills aided the Pats' division title quest with their shutout win over the Dolphins. Fred Jackson ran for 111 yards with a touchdown and the Buffalo defense came away with a season-high seven sacks.
Dan Carpenter accounted for the other 12 points with four field goals as the Bills have won two straight for the first time this season.
"I'm very proud of this team," said Bills coach Doug Marrone. "They've worked hard all week again. We talked to them about winning two wins in a row, which we haven't done, I'm excited about that. We have to finish strong."
With EJ Manuel sidelined with a knee injury, Thad Lewis again got the better of the Dolphins, throwing for 193 yards. He was helped by a defense that notched four sacks in the first half and limited Miami to 103 yards of offense, including just 14 on the ground.
"They were outstanding," said Marrone about the Bills' defense. "It was an honor to be on the sideline and watch those guys perform."
The Bills need another victory this weekend to avoid a third straight 6-10 season, though they will finish under .500 for a ninth campaign in a row. However, they are 3-2 against the AFC East this season.
One of those losses was a 23-21 home setback to New England in Week 1. The Bills led by four points going into the fourth quarter, but the Pats got a pair of field goals from Stephen Gostkowski to pull ahead. That included a 35- yard winner with five seconds remaining.
That gave the Patriots a fourth straight victory over the Bills and they have won 24 of the last 26 meetings overall.
That includes a 12-game home winning streak as Buffalo has not won in Foxboro since Nov. 5, 2000 and never at Gillette Stadium since it opened in 2002 (0-11).
Buffalo has not won three straight games overall since Weeks 1-3 in 2011.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Brady picked up his 147th career regular-season victory last weekend to move into a tie with Dan Marino for fourth on the all-time wins list among starting quarterbacks. Next up is John Elway, who had 148.
It has been a solid if unspectacular season for the 14-year pro, with his 24 touchdown passes on pace to be his lowest single-season total since having 28 in 2009. However, he has still topped 4,000 yards passing for the third straight season and sixth time in his career.
Brady is 11-0 at home in his career versus the Bills, throwing 26 touchdown passes to five interceptions.
New England ranks sixth in the NFL in passing offense despite a big turnover in the receiving game, with new additions Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson all looking to build chemistry with Brady.
One consistent has been Julian Edelman, who has caught 96 passes for 991 yards and six touchdowns. He is on the verge of joining Wes Welker and Troy Brown as the only receivers in Pats history to haul in 100 passes in a season.
"I don't really think we've seen a whole lot from Julian that we haven't seen before," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "There are a lot of things to like about Julian: his toughness, his speed, his quickness, his ability to run with the ball after he catches it and break tackles and be elusive and have good run skills in the secondary. He's a tough kid who can come in and block. He's smart, he's got versatility."
Brady was sacked twice and picked off once in Week 1 versus the Bills, whose defense set the tone for a record season. Buffalo's 56 sacks lead the NFL and are a single-season team record, surpassing the 50 the 1964 AFL title team logged.
That pass rush has also helped generate 22 interceptions, second-most in the league this season.
Five different players logged sacks for the Bills last weekend versus the Dolphins, with defensive tackle Kyle Williams and cornerback Nickell Robey getting two each.
"I think wins are the biggest thing for our guys. But when you start, it trickles down to the defensive stats versus the individual stats, that's a prideful group," said Buffalo defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. "They know that they are capable of putting up some big sack numbers, but not at the expense of anything else. As long as it's in the structure of the defense."
Defensive end Jerry Hughes picked up his 10th sack of the season, giving the Bills three players with 10 or more sacks in a season for the first time since 1995, when Bruce Smith, Bryce Paup and Phil Hansen did it.
Kyle Williams has 10 1/2 sacks on the year, while Mario Williams leads the club with 13.
With Manuel out again this weekend and Lewis in line to start again, Jackson and C.J. Spiller should see a hefty number of carries again this weekend against the 30th-ranked run defense.
The duo combined for 188 yards on 39 carries versus the Dolphins and the Bills rank second in football with 142.5 rushing yards per game.
Jackson went over 5,000 rushing yards in a Bills uniform last weekend, joining O.J. Simpson and Thurman Thomas as the only players to do that in team history.
Pats cornerback Logan Ryan had two interceptions last weekend and leads the team and all NFL rookies with five picks on the season. Buffalo rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso has four interceptions on the year.
Motivation certainly won't be lacking in this game, with the Patriots aiming to secure a week off and the Bills trying to post their first winning record against their division since 2007.
"It would be really, really good," said Bills safety Jairus Byrd. "Like we were talking about building for the future, that is a big step in the right direction. I think that's what we need to do, we need to finish the season strong and that's a great step in the right direction."
So would a first victory at Gillette Stadium, in December no less, but that is much easier said than done given how strong the Pats usually finish.
The Bills won't go quietly, but trends are trends for a reason.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 27, Bills 19
12/27 14:21:43 ET