FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — For the better part of two decades, the second meeting of the regular season between the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots has had only mild drama attached to it.
That won’t be the case for Sunday’s matchup.
New England (11-3) wrapped up its ninth consecutive AFC East title with last week’s win over Pittsburgh. It can lock up a first-round bye this week with a victory over the Bills, combined with a loss by either Pittsburgh or Jacksonville.
If the Patriots win and the Steelers and Jaguars both lose, New England will secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Bills (8-6) are still alive in their quest to break a 17-year playoff drought, and would not be eliminated from contention even with a loss to the Patriots.
Buffalo’s postseason absence is the longest active streak in North America’s four major professional sports. In NFL terms, Buffalo is tied for having the fifth-longest drought, and the longest since the NFL merger in 1970.
“Of course, the big picture’s there, but you can’t move too far ahead,” said Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who was Joe Flacco’s backup for the Baltimore Ravens’ 2013 Super Bowl win. “It’s definitely tough, but one thing about it is you can’t necessarily worry about what other teams are doing.”
There is also the subplot of this being the first time the teams have met since Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski’s late, gratuitous hit on Bills defensive back Tre’Davious Whitelate in New England’s 23-3 win at Buffalo Dec. 3.
White was lying face down on the sideline after intercepting Tom Brady’s fourth-quarter pass attempt to Gronkowski. Gronk — upset about a flag not being called on White for pushing off — dived into him, driving his forearm into White’s back and head. Gronkowski was called for unnecessary roughness, but not kicked out of the game.
Afterward, Patriots coach Bill Belichick apologized to Buffalo coach Sean McDermott . Gronkowski also apologized, saying he let his frustration get the better of him.
In the days that followed, White condemned Gronk as “a dirty player.” But he said this week that he has moved on .
“It’s just getting over it,” White said. “It was still lingering on me. But as I got a chance to think about it, that was childish. I got over it and I’m past it. I’m focused on winning.”
Safety Devin McCourty said he is expecting a playoff atmosphere, but not because of any bad blood.
“I don’t think either team is going to need what happened last game to get them going,” McCourty said. “Two teams trying to win a football game at the end of the season is going to be chippy. It’s going to be everything from pushing and shoving to fighting for extra yards. You’re going to get all of that Sunday.”
Here are some things to watch for when the Bills and patriots square off again:
ONE-MAN SHOW: Most of the Bills’ success this season has come via the legs of running back LeSean McCoy.
He leads the Bills with 1,057 yards rushing and six touchdowns. He also has two TD catches. In all, he has accounted for eight of the 26 touchdowns scored by the Bills’ offense. His 1,407 yards from scrimmage (including 350 receiving) make up 33 percent of the net yards of offense Buffalo has produced.
McCoy has eclipsed 100 yards rushing four times this season. Buffalo is 3-1 in those games. New England has allowed a 100-yard rusher only four times and is 2-2 in those contests.
DEFENSIVE STRUGGLES: While McCoy has been the catalyst offensively when Buffalo has had success this season, Buffalo’s defense has mostly struggled with stopping the run.
It has allowed 140 or more yards rushing six times and given up a league-worst 19 of its 32 touchdowns on the ground. That included two against New England and six in a 47-10 loss to New Orleans on Nov. 12.
By contrast, the Bills have allowed a league-low 11 touchdowns passing, and two or more in one game just twice this season (three in 30-27 win over Tampa Bay and two in 54-24 loss to the Chargers).
TOM TERRIFIC: The Patriots have won four of the last five meetings with the Bills, but Buffalo has taken two of the last three games in Foxborough.
Brady was serving his four-game “Deflategate” suspension during Buffalo’s 16-0 win at Gillette Stadium last season. But the 40-year-old QB has a 27-3 regular-season record against the Bills, his highest win total over any opponent. He has also thrown for more touchdowns (66) against the Bills than any other opponent.
(Copyright (c) 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)