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As the regular season comes to a close this weekend, the AFC playoff picture is still up in the air. Only the Kansas City Chiefs know for certain their seed going into the playoffs and depending on the outcome of several games, the Patriots could find themselves anywhere between the No. 1 and No. 4 seed.
The Patriots have already secured a playoff berth and continued their AFC East dominance by winning their 10th AFC East title in 11 years with their victory last week against the Baltimore Ravens. Despite suffering major season-ending injuries to stars on offense and defense, the Patriots have managed to wiggle their way to the No. 2 seed in the AFC, but that could all change this weekend.
Two of the most important things at stake for the Patriots are home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and just as importantly, rest! With a win, the Patriots will secure a No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, which would be critical for resting the countless number of injured players. Not only that, but if history is any indication, the Patriots secured a first-round bye all five seasons they reached the Super Bowl.
If they win and the Broncos somehow lose to the Raiders, the Patriots would take over the top seed, securing home-field advantage throughout the postseason and ensuring the road to the Super Bowl would have to go through Foxborough. However, with a loss and a Bengals and/or Colts victory, the Patriots could fall all the way to No. 4. Home-field advantage could be crucial if the Patriots expect to make it all the way to the Super Bowl, especially since are undefeated at home so far this season.
Run the ball: With their last home game of the season against a very familiar division opponent in the Bills, the Patriots are hoping to roll into the playoffs with some type of momentum. The Bills, on the other hand, are looking spoil the Patriots’ hopes for a first-round bye. Although the Patriots have won 20 of their last 21 meetings against the Bills, the games are always physical. Just earlier this season, the Patriots barely escaped Buffalo with a win on a last second Stephen Gostkowksi field goal.
Despite their 6-9 record, the Bills have a top-five ranked defense led by Mario Williams and a pass rush that will knock Tom Brady off his feet several times throughout the game. The Bills are coming off one of their better defensive performances against Miami last Sunday. They recorded seven sacks against the Dolphins to reach 56 sacks for the season, which leads the league. We all know Brady struggles under pressure, so look for the Patriots to run the ball and try lots of screen passes to get the ball quickly out of Brady’s hands. Also expect Stevan Ridley to get more carries with Shane Vereen nursing a groin injury. This could be Ridley’s chance to prove he deserves to start in the postseason.
Stop the Bills running game: The Patriots defense has done a pretty good job all season of shutting down their opponent’s biggest threat and look for that trend to continue this Sunday. It is no secret the Patriots rush defense needs major improvement and stopping backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson will be no easy task for the struggling defense. The Bills actually have an AFC leading 142.5 rushing yards per game and averaged just over 200 rushing yards the past two meetings against the Patriots. Hopefully, the defense can make a statement before going into the playoffs and players like Chandler Jones can step up and disrupt the running game. Maybe Dont’a Hightower will make some plays for once!
Injuries: On the Buffalo side of the ball, quarterback EJ Manuel has been officially ruled out for the season finale, leaving the ball in the hands of Thad Lewis. In five starts this season, Lewis has been 2-3 with a 60.2 completion percentage and three interceptions. The Patriots will look to put pressure on the young quarterback and force him to make mistakes early and often. The Bills offense has 10 turnovers in its last four games and look for the Patriots defense to capitalize on that weakness.
The Patriots are also getting a big break on defense as Bills leading receiver Steve Johnson will also miss the final game of the season to mourn the death of his mother.
On the Patriots side of the ball, Shane Vereen did participate in practice but just how much he will play on Sunday is unknown. Safety Devin McCourty did not participate in practice with a concussion and his status for the game is questionable, but most likely he will sit out.
With key players on both teams sidelined for the season finale, it should be another close game between the divisional opponents. With so much at stake for the Patriots, look for them to roll into the playoffs with a two-game winning streak with a 27-21 victory over the Bills, securing at least the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a much needed first round bye going into the playoffs.