Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Once again, Pats have goal in sight
After an offseason defined by the incarceration of one star and the departure of another, after a spate of injuries struck down a number of important pieces, after all the questions brought on by a season full of close games, after the penalties that were called, after the penalties that weren't, after the comebacks, and after all the crazy conclusions - here are the Patriots. Again.
With one day left in the NFL's regular season, they're just a win away from finishing this campaign exactly as they did the last. Just a win away from winding up with a record of 12-4, good enough to be champions of the East division and recipients of the first-round bye that accompanies a seed of no worse than No. 2 in the AFC playoffs.
Just a win away, and with a chance to get it at home. Against a foe that hasn't won in Foxborough since Doug Flutie beat injured Drew Bledsoe in 2000. Against the division's resident cellar dweller. Against a quarterback who opened the season on the practice squad and will be without his leading receiver. And against a defense that just put its leading interceptor on injured reserve.
So the objective today for the Patriots is obvious, after the experience that has put them in this position: Don't blow it.
They've overcome too many hurdles, endured too much, survived too long to waste the opportunity that awaits them this afternoon at Gillette Stadium - particularly when considering what taking advantage of said opportunity would really mean in the context of competing for the conference championship.
Because they control their own destiny as far as a bye is concerned, and because a bye would instantly mean advancing to the divisional round, winning today against the Bills would essentially be like winning a playoff game. Except better.
If New England is forced to fight its way through wild card weekend, a team that had road troubles would be forced to travel for Round 2, whereas win today and the Pats are home at least until the AFC championship game. Not to mention that beating Buffalo is an easier task than beating Kansas City or whichever team escapes the pile to claim the No. 6 seed.
But if the Patriots don't beat the Bills, and don't capitalize on the opportunity, the path to a title becomes so much tougher. If New England loses today, it would take only a Cincinnati win over Baltimore, or an Indianapolis win over Jacksonville, to force the Patriots into action next week and subsequently force them to the road a weekend later if they were fortunate enough to survive that.
As this season has shown - and as Tom Brady has noted on several occasions - the Patriots' margin for error is smaller than it has been in recent seasons, and so every advantage matters. Every game will be a significant challenge, and every win will have been a serious chore. That's the way it has been during the regular season, and that's the way it will continue to be in the playoffs.
To this point the Patriots have found a way to meet those challenges and complete those chores often enough that they're in an excellent position. Heck, if Denver loses to Oakland today, there's a chance the Pats could have home-field advantage throughout the conference tournament.
But that is predicated on them winning today. So is the rest. And so might be any realistic chance that this team can get to the Super Bowl. That opportunity is there for these pesky, persistent Patriots to make a run in the playoffs.
And that starts with the opportunity before them today.
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UNDERRATED: Buffalo's pass defense. The Bills have allowed the fifth-fewest yards through the air this season (210.4 yards per game), while ranking second with 22 interceptions. That starts up front, where Mario Williams (13), Kyle Williams (10.5) and Jerry Hughes (10) have all contributed double figures to Buffalo's league-high total of 56 sacks. But there's talent on the back end, too, with safety Jairus Byrd headed to the Pro Bowl and Leodis McKelvin having broken up 20 passes. Particularly with rain in the forecast, the Patriots might first try to exploit the Bills' 23rd-ranked run defense.
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OVERRATED: Momentum. Patriots fans shouldn't worry about style points today, at least in terms of projecting to the playoffs, because end-of-season momentum matters little moving forward. The last Super Bowl champion to enter the playoffs with more than two straight wins was the 2005 Steelers, and not since the 2003 Patriots has the champ finished with more than four consecutive victories. Instead, over the last seven years every eventual winner faltered late, including last year's Ravens, who closed the regular season by losing four of five. What matters today for New England is that they win, not how they do it.
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KEEP AN EYE ON.: The Patriots' point total, where 23 is the magic number for New England today. When allowing opponents at least 23 points this season, the Bills are 1-9 - including the 23-21 last-minute loss to the Pats in the season opener - while when Buffalo has managed to limit its enemy to less than 23 points, it is 5-0. Furthermore, the Patriots are 10-1 when scoring at least 23, compared to 1-3 when failing to do so.
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KEY MATCHUP: Patriots' defense vs. Bills' running game. Behind Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller, the Bills have the league's second-best running attack, which averages 4.2 yards per carry and 142.5 yards per game. That's a concern for New England, which yielded 136 to Buffalo in the initial meeting, and which ranks 29th league-wide for the season.
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STAT OF THE WEEK: Pats receiver Julian Edelman needs four catches totaling at least nine yards to reach the 100-catch and 1,000-yard plateaus for the season. In the previous four seasons of his career, he totaled 69 grabs and 714 yards.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.