FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — In successive weeks last season, the Buffalo Bills ended the Patriots’ run of 11 consecutive AFC East titles and put a cap on their first season sweep of New England in more than a decade.
It felt like a possible power shift in a division the Patriots dominated during the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era.
A year later, New England is hoping to make it little more than a speed bump.
After grinding out a 14-10 win at Buffalo earlier this month, the Patriots (9-5) host the Bills (8-6) in Sunday’s rematch needing a victory and a loss or tie by Miami at New Orleans on Monday to claim its 18th AFC East title since 2001.
But the margin for error is smaller than in previous seasons. A victory by the Bills would put them back atop the division, give them tiebreakers over the Patriots and Dolphins and clear a path to a second straight division crown.
Patriots safety Devin McCourty said having their seven-game win streak snapped in a loss at Indianapolis last week has helped keep everyone focused.
“There are what, 12 or 13 teams in the AFC that are all kind of in the same position? You need to win if you want to keep your season going,” he said. “I would say us, along with Buffalo coming in here Sunday, have the same mentality. Obviously, the division’s on the line. It’s a huge game. … It’s not gonna be an easy task.”
In the first meeting, the Patriots played old school football, throwing the ball only three times and racking up 222 rushing yards on a windy and wet night in Buffalo. New England’s defense also came up big late, denying Bills quarterback Josh Allen on back-to-back passes inside the red zone to seal the victory.
Despite the Bills' record and what’s on the line this weekend, it’s still difficult to gauge just how good they might be.
Buffalo is 4-5 in its past nine and hasn’t won consecutive games since capping a four-win run with a 38-20 win at Kansas City on Oct. 10. The Chiefs stand as the only team with a winning record entering Week 16 whom the Bills have defeated.
On top of that, the Bills will play without slot receiver Cole Beasley (COVID-19 list) and receiver Emmanuel Sanders’ status is uncertain after missing last week with a knee injury. It was also unclear if starting left tackle Dion Dawkins and starting right guard Jon Feliciano can be cleared from the COVID-19 list in time to play.
Allen said none of that will will change how they approach the game.
“We know what’s at stake, but we’re not trying to make it the biggest game,” he said. “It’s the next. We’re not trying to approach it any differently than we would any other week.”
CHANGING THE NARRATIVE
Safety Jordan Poyer scoffed at the narrative regarding Buffalo’s struggles against the run during an appearance on the Pat McAfee Show. Asked about it Wednesday, Poyer said the Bills use the lack of respect as motivation, given how the defense ranks first in the NFL in yards allowed and tied for third with 27 takeaways, while failing to note it is currently ranks 16th against the run, down from third following a 45-17 win over the Jets on Nov. 14.
And yet, Poyer acknowledged, the defense has had its inconsistencies in having allowed a combined 510 yards rushing over its past three and having generated just three takeaways in six losses.
“That’s the difference in wins and losses,” Poyer said. “The ones that we did lose, we weren’t able to take the football away, and that’s a huge factor in the game. So we just want to get back to doing that.”
NEW GAME PLAN?
As much success as the Patriots had running the ball in the first game, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said there’s a fine line when deciding how much to change things up facing an opponent for the second time.
“There’s always kind of a bit of tug-of-war going on because you may have had success with something and then you go, ‘We've got to do this again, right?’ But the other team knows you had success with it and then they try to stop it,” he said.
Health could play a role. Running back Damien Harris, who had a season-high 111 rushing yards and the Patriots' lone TD in the first meeting, sat out against the Colts with a hamstring injury and was limited to begin the week of practice.
The Bills are 7-0 in games in which they’ve never trailed and 1-6 in games they’ve trailed at any juncture, while having yet to rally from a fourth-quarter deficit.
Aside from a 41-15 loss to Indianapolis, Buffalo’s five other losses have been decided by seven or fewer points. The Bills' eight wins have all been decided by double-digit margins.
“I guess that’s football, because I think last year in one-possession games, we were almost the opposite,” Allen said, referring to the Bills going 4-1 in games decided by seven points or less in 2020. “The other team gets paid, too. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to continue to try to make plays and execute a game plan and put ourselves in position to win football games instead of not winning.”
AP Sports Writer John Wawrow in Orchard Park, New York, contributed.
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