The New England Patriots stopped being content with winning division titles long ago. During the Bill Belichick era, their success has been measured by Super Bowls.
Clinching a first-round playoff bye could be crucial as they try to reach another one.
The Patriots can ensure themselves of at least the AFC's No. 2 seed Sunday with their 20th win in 21 tries against the visiting Buffalo Bills.
New England (11-4) clinched its fifth straight AFC East title and 10th in 11 years early last Sunday when Miami suffered a 19-0 loss to Buffalo. Then for good measure, the Patriots went out later that afternoon and crushed Baltimore 41-7.
Getting a break in the first round of the postseason has proved particularly pivotal during Belichick's tenure. The Patriots have secured a bye in seven of Belichick's first 13 seasons, including all five in which they reached the Super Bowl.
New England can also clinch at least the conference's second seed if Cincinnati loses to or ties with Baltimore and Indianapolis loses to or ties Jacksonville, but winning would remove all doubt. A win and a Denver loss at Oakland would give the Patriots home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
Other scenarios could see them finish as low as fourth in the conference.
"We always say that as the season goes on, the games only get bigger and bigger and bigger, and I think that is this week, too," said Tom Brady, whose 53 TD passes and 5,695 passing yards versus Buffalo are his most versus any opponent. "We've worked too hard for too long to get to this point.
"We've got a great opportunity ahead of us, and you just don't want to go out there and not give it your best and put out an effort that's less than 100 percent of what you're capable of, because, like I said, it's been 11 months of work to get us back to this point."
Even as dominant as the Patriots have been in this series, winning 12 straight home matchups dating to Nov. 11, 2001, the team's veteran members appear to be guarding their teammates from taking the Bills for granted. Buffalo's lone win in the last 10 years came Sept. 25, 2011.
"We're not even thinking about the bye or not having the bye. We can't overlook the present," defensive end Andre Carter said. "Right now our focus is Buffalo and only Buffalo."
The Patriots defeated the Bills 23-21 in the season opener on Stephen Gostkowski's 35-yard field goal with five seconds left. Brady threw two TD passes to Julian Edelman and New England held Buffalo to an opponent season-low 286 yards.
The Bills (6-9), who lost two fumbles in the opener, have been one of the league's most turnover-prone teams, tied for eighth with 27. They've had 10 in the last four games.
Buffalo will go with backup quarterback Thad Lewis for a second straight game after he went 15 of 25 for 193 yards with an interception against the Dolphins. Rookie EJ Manuel hasn't been ruled out because of a swollen left knee, but he won't start and is listed as doubtful.
Lewis improved to 2-2 in Manuel's absence by beating Miami despite working with a banged-up receiving corps that may be short again. Marquise Goodwin didn't return after hurting his right knee in the first quarter, while Stevie Johnson's status is uncertain with his mother's funeral scheduled for Friday.
Buffalo may need another dominant performance from its defense. The Bills surrendered 103 yards to the Dolphins, the fewest allowed by any team over the last three seasons.
They also notched seven sacks, pushing their season total to a franchise-record 56. Mario Williams, who is one sack shy of matching a career-high 14 set in 2007, Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes all have at least 10.
Buffalo sacked Brady three times on Sept. 8.
The Bills are racking up an AFC-best 142.5 rushing yards per game, including a 200.5 average over the last two contests. They recorded 136 yards on 34 carries in the first meeting, with Fred Jackson averaging 5.2 yards per rush.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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