By HOWARD ULMAN The Associated Press
Niagara Gazette — FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Another year, another playoff berth for the New England Patriots. For the Buffalo Bills, the postseason drought continues.
With their fifth straight AFC East title already achieved, the Patriots (11-4) can clinch a first-round bye Sunday. The Bills are simply ending their 14th straight season, the NFL’s longest current streak, without reaching the playoffs.
But under first-year coach Doug Marrone, Buffalo (6-9) has a solid defense and a chance to finish with three straight victories by beating New England.
“We just lost some heartbreaking games,” running back C.J. Spiller said. “We just have to find a way to be able to get over that edge and we will. We’ve got a great leadership group. We’ve got a lot of great guys coming back in the near future. We’re definitely going to get over that hump and make the Bills fans happy.”
The Bills lost the season opener to the Patriots 23-21 on Stephen Gostkowski’s field goal with 5 seconds left. They dropped overtime games to Cincinnati and Atlanta. And they’ve used three quarterbacks because of knee injuries to rookie EJ Manuel, who was limited in practice this week.
But a victory would make them the only AFC East team with a winning record in division games.
“That would be important for what we want to be able to build on,” Marrone said. “Really (we’re) just trying to change things.”
Change has been a constant for the Patriots in an injury-filled season with five key starters — defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, linebacker Jerod Mayo, tight end Rob Gronkowski and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer — on injured reserve. But as long as Bill Belichick is the coach and Tom Brady is the quarterback, their divisional dominance is likely to continue.
The Patriots want more, starting with their eighth bye in Belichick’s 14 seasons as their coach. They also would drop into a wild-card game if they end up seeded third or fourth.
“You’d think that we’ve played for 15 games, but there’s still a lot to be seen with this team,” Brady said.
Five things to know about the Bills-Patriots matchup:
MORE THAN BRADY: Despite having new wide receivers and with Gronkowski sidelined for all but seven games, Brady is having an outstanding season. But there are many other reasons for the Patriots’ success.
A defense with rookies and free agent pickups filling in has progressed to the point where it allowed just one touchdown and had four takeaways — two returned for touchdowns — against Baltimore in last Sunday’ 41-7 win. And the Patriots have won six games by three points or fewer.
This year’s team is “one of the most mentally and physically tough football teams I’ve been on,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater, a six-year veteran.
SACK HAPPY: The Bills hope to increase their NFL-best sacks total of 56 after getting seven in last Sunday’s 19-0 win over Miami.
“They have great players up front,” Belichick said. “Kyle Williams (10 1-2 sacks) is playing as good as any defensive lineman that we’ve seen all year. He’s unblockable, borderline unblockable, a lot of the time.”
When Brady does get the pass off, he’ll throw into a defense that is second in the NFL with 22 interceptions.
GROUND GAME: Only one team has more yards rushing than the Bills. Only three have allowed more than the Patriots. So New England’s run defense should be tested. Buffalo has the strong Fred Jackson, with 836 yards rushing, and the elusive Spiller, with 822, to give the Patriots different looks.
In their last two games, the Bills rushed for 198 and 203 yards in wins over Jacksonville and Miami.
EDELMAN’S EXCELLENCE: Julian Edelman has emerged as the unexpected successor to WR Wes Welker, who signed with Denver as a free agent. He has 96 receptions, fourth in the NFL, after totaling 69 in his first four seasons since New England drafted him in the seventh round. His speed and shiftiness also make him one of the league’s top punt returners.
“There are a lot of things to like about Julian,” Belichick said, “his toughness, his speed, his quickness, his ability to run with the ball after he catches it and break tackles, and be elusive and have good run skills in the secondary. He’s a tough kid who can come in and block. He’s smart. He’s got versatility.”
HAPPY AT HOME: The Patriots have won their last 12 home games against the Bills, 11 since Gillette Stadium opened in 2002. Since then, their 90-18 record, including playoffs, is the best home record in the NFL. And they’re 30-5 against AFC East opponents there in that span.
“I think our team realizes the challenge we have in going to New England,” Marrone said. “We have not won up there in Gillette Stadium. We know we’re going to have to play extremely well.”