The Patriots (12-3) clinched a first-round bye with a win last Sunday over the Jets. On Monday, New England clinched the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs and essentially made this season finale meeting with the Bills (8-7) meaningless. But meaningless is relative, and probably a term thrown around more by fans/media than players or coaches. Clearly Buffalo would love to end the year and head into the offseason with a victory, one that would give the franchise its first winning season since Drew Bledsoe led the Bills to nine wins in 2004. Similarly, each and every Patriots player that steps on the field for a single snap would like to win that play, that battle against a an opposing Bill. Buffalo is also looking to win its first-ever game at Gillette Stadium, having been sent home unhappy every year for more than a decade. One team will be enjoying a postseason tune-up heading into a bye week. The other will be looking to close out the year on a high note. 'Tis the season to turn the calendar to a new year and the NFL page to the postseason. But before that happens get ready for an AFC East division rivalry finale with this winter sampler, holiday sandwich week edition of the Bills at Patriots Pregame Six-Pack!
- Who, what, when?** – The main topic/question all week in Foxborough was in regards to who would play in the finale and how long they would go. Bill Belichick's official response to queries about how he'd manage his personnel in the finale was, "We'll do the same thing we always do. It won't be any different this week than it's been any other week. It won't be any different this year than it's been any other year. We'll do what we feel is best for our football team, period. Whatever's best for our team then that's what we'll try to do." Using history as a guideline it would seem likely that anyone dealing with any sort of injury could very well be inactive. That could include guys like Julian Edelman, Kyle Arrington, Dan Connolly and LeGarrette Blount, all of whom missed last Sunday's game in New York. Alfonzo Dennard and Jonas Gray have already been ruled out. But, barring a change from the past, healthy players, even superstars like Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Darrelle Revis, could see early action against the Bills. In the past, when New England has clinched a bye and had an essentially meaningless game, Belichick has played his starters enough to try ensure they don't get too rusty before the time off leading up to the second round of playoff action. Could that change? Sure. But for now it would seem likely that Brady and Co. could see a few series of action, maybe two quarters of playing time, before taking to the sideline for some well-earned rest. Fifteen different Patriots are listed as questionable for the game. That includes new additions to the injury report such as Brandon Browner (groin), Jamie Collins (hip) and Sebastian Vollmer (back). That means if those guys don't play against Buffalo they will be perceived as guys who are nicked up getting time off, not so much resting healthy starters. With just 53-men on the roster you can't rest everyone. But clearly Belichick will manage his personnel against the Bills taking injury and upcoming time off into account, among other things. Watching the game will involve plenty of time noting who is doing what and for how long.
- High five** – While it's uncertain whether the Patriots five-man line will play – considering that Connolly continues to deal with a knee injury at left guard and right tackle Vollmer has a back issue – it would be nice to see whoever lines up on the front get the job done against the Bills. Buffalo brings an impressive front filled with Pro Bowl talent across the line. It's a unit that's put up a league-best 50 sacks this season. Mario Williams – or "Big M" as Belichick calls him – and Jerry Hughes are issues on the edge. Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams are big problems on the inside. They combine to form one of the biggest challenges an offensive line can face. The Patriots line has been too inconsistent over the last month-plus. The group has allowed Brady to feel early pressure and get hurried/hit much more than is ideal, especially at this time of year. That has led to slow starts for the offense in general. Though the personnel and playing time questions muddy the water a bit, it would be nice to the Dave DeGuglielmo's group play a consistent game against a very impressive Bills front. That might be a step toward calming those who believe that the offensive line is New England's biggest concern heading into the postseason.
- Trending turnovers** – Part of what has made the Patriots defense more impressive this year is that the unit hasn't had to rely solely on turnovers to get stops and make plays. Still, every defense is at its best when it's creating turnovers. New England has notched a takeaway in three straight games and in seven of the last eight, although all have come via the interception. That's part of why New England ranks tied for third in the NFL with a plus-11 turnover differential. Buffalo isn't far behind, though, tying for sixth in the league with a plus-8 differential. The Bills trail only the Romeo Crennel's Texans defense with 30 takeaways on the season. And unfortunately Brady has been giving the ball away via the interception a bit too frequently of late. Brady has thrown an interception in three straight games and six of the last seven. This, after he threw a pick in just one of the first eight games of the year. Because of that the Patriots have actually won the turnover differential in just one game in their last six contests. Turnovers are always important in football. They become even more critical – for success on defense and failure on offense – in the postseason. It would be nice to see Brady and the Patriots stop turning the ball over heading into the postseason. Likewise it would be good to see the New England defense continue to take it away, especially against Kyle Orton, who's thrown at least one pick in four straight games and two interceptions in three of those games.
4. Numbers, streaks and records – Belichick and the Patriots aren't too interested in press release stats or records. The focus is clearly on the playoffs and setting themselves up to get past the AFC title game that's been a stumbling block of late, to get into the mix to bring another Lombardi Trophy to Foxborough. But there are a lot of interesting streaks and numbers on the line in the finale, whether it's Brady and Co. pursuing those marks or a slew of Belichick's backups. The Patriots have never lost to Buffalo at Gillette Stadium. New England has won 35 straight games at home against AFC foes. The team has won 16 straight at home in the regular season. New England has won 17 straight at home against AFC East opponents, one shy of Green Bay's NFL record. Belichick can win 13 games in a season for a fifth time, which would be a record. Brady is looking to throw a touchdown pass in every game for a record fourth time. Stephen Gostkowski is looking to lead the NFL in scoring for the third straight year and fourth time overall, he would become just the fifth player to lead the league in scoring for three straight years. These are just some of the streaks, numbers and records on the line in the finale, a game that in many ways clearly isn't completely meaningless.
5. Momentum – The Patriots head toward January having won 10 of their last 11 games. But it doesn't feel like the team has quite the same momentum it did in the middle of the season dispatching teams like the Broncos and Colts. Recent tight wins over the Chargers and Jets, as well as an early struggle against Miami have tested the team's mettle. Looking back on that later on it could be a good thing or a bad thing – creating toughness or signs of struggles to come. The unsettled nature of the finale in terms of playing time may make anything that occurs in the game meaningless. But it would still be a positive to see the Patriots come out early, shake of the recent slow starts, get a lead and role to victory.
6. Jimmy G. love – I told my seven-year-old son that Jimmy Garoppolo might play in the season finale and he responded with, "Yah, Jimmy Garoppolo." It would seem the rookie backup quarterback has already developed a nice fan following based on his preseason success and limited reps this fall. The second-round pick and perceived heir to the QB job should see some snaps against Buffalo, maybe a half or more of action. It will be a nice chance for him to get reps against a solid defense and build on his experience. Belichick praised his rookie for his work and growth as a player as the season has worn on. That could take another step forward in the finale. Meaningless is certainly not the way Garoppolo would likely describe any chances he gets to take snaps and read defenses against the Bills. It could be a key part in his eventual development. It will also be something interesting for coaches and fans alike to watch and assess.
Predicting the way this game plays out is an even more dubious endeavor than in previous weeks, many of which saw games play out quite different than conventional wisdom may have projected. Emotion, energy and focus will be keys for both teams in this game. That said, I expect both sides to play competitive football, at least early on. Buffalo, with guys like Brandon Spikes leading the way, should bring a fire to finish out the year strong. New England, led by Brady, should be ready to go to work when it steps on the field. I think the focus from the Patriots perspective will be on getting out to a fast start and a lead. The perfect scenario would be for Brady to lead a couple early, impressive scoring drives and then go to the sidelines with Gronkowski and others in tow. But clearly a competitive, feisty, talented Bills defense will have something to say about that. My guess is that Brady leads New England to somewhere between 13 and 17 points before exiting stage right for the day. That will open up chances for Garoppolo and others to make plays. And there is no doubt when guys like that are on the field they will clearly be giving it their all. In the end, with very little to go on and much of the game plan and competitive nature of the game up in the air, I'm going to go with a 27-13 victory for New England to close out the year in victorious fashion. Really, though, all most people care about is whether Brady, Gronkowski and Revis, among others, get to January in a healthy fashion. Fingers crossed!