Will they or won't they?
Ever since Rob Gronkowski delivered an unsportsmanlike late hit on Bills rookie starting cornerback Tre'Davious White three weeks ago in Buffalo, many have wondered whether or not White and his teammates will seek retribution when the two teams square off again on Christmas Eve in Foxborough.
"He's a good player. No doubt about that," Gronkowski said of White on Friday. "He's young and can make plays."
In that previous encounter, the referees penalized Gronkowski for unnecessary roughness following his late-fourth-quarter hit to White's head. The defender was lying out of bounds on the turf in a vulnerable position after intercepting a deep pass intended for Gronkowski, whose violent reaction sent White into the NFL's concussion protocol program for several days thereafter. He was subsequently cleared and has played in every Bills game since.
Gronkowski apologized publicly to White in post-game comments to the media immediately after the incident and did further penance by serving a one-game suspension (against Miami in Week 14) for what has been described, at best, as his uncharacteristic behavior toward White.
Initially, White and other Bills reacted by calling New England's Pro Bowl tight end a "dirty player," although White, at least, has since backpedaled from those disparaging comments. Earlier this week, White described the entire episode – both the hit and his own remarks thereafter – as childish.
"As I've had time to think about it, I knew he wasn't that type of player," White added.
"I got over it and I'm past it. I'm just focused on winning."
New England has already clinched a playoff berth by virtue of its ninth consecutive AFC East title (earned with last week's win in Pittsburgh). Buffalo, meanwhile, has not paid a postseason visit since 1999 – a dubious streak that could end this year if circumstances continue to favor the 8-6 Bills in the final two weeks of this regular season.
So, Buffalo with holding on tenuously to playoff hopes, the Bills appear to recognize that any over-aggressive action toward Gronkowski this weekend – which is sure to be highly scrutinized – could jeopardize the health and availability of any players who take part, and that, in turn, could threaten their postseason prospects.
"Right. Well we focus on what's important and that's the means and the steps necessary to win the football game," Bills head coach Sean McDermott told reporters via conference call this week. "Any time spent on that [Gronkowski-White] situation is really unnecessary and a waste of time. We've got too much work to do and these weeks are too short to do anything like that."
"We know if we go out there and try do anything selfish or anything to hurt the team," White continued, "we can cost ourselves a playoff spot – or one of our main players [to injury, ejection, or suspension] – by going out there and doing something stupid. We need everybody. It's going to be a total team effort. We definitely need everybody on the field to beat this team. We'll put that [incident] on the back burner and just focus on winning."
Earlier this week, White indicated that he has not heard from his opponent since the on-field events of Dec. 3 in Orchard Park and does not expect to before, during, or after this Sunday's game. On Friday, Gronkowski would not say, one way or the other, if he's made or plans to make any attempts to contact White directly to resolve the issue once and for all.
All this week, the Bills have said the right things about not retaliating against Gronkowski, but even the best of intentions can be derailed once players step in between the painted white lines on game days. So, does Gronkowski fear any unwelcome response from Buffalo this weekend?
"I'm just focusing on the game Sunday, preparing the same, and we'll see how it goes," he replied. "I'm just expecting a very good, hard-nosed football team on the defensive side of the ball to be coming full-speed, like they always do."
Home for the holidays
The Patriots return to Gillette Stadium this Sunday for their first game in Foxborough since Thanksgiving Weekend, after having played the previous three contests on the road. New England will host Buffalo before closing out 2017's regular season with a home date versus the New York Jets on New Year's Eve.
"We love playing home games and anticipating a lot of enthusiastic fans at the game," wide receiver Danny Amendola stated. "So, we're all excited to be here. We're playing a good team this week."
Neither defensive tackle Alan Branch nor running back Rex Burkhead practiced this week, placing their hopes of suiting up this weekend against Buffalo in serious jeopardy. Both players are dealing with right knee injurie. Branch suffered his at Miami in Week 14, while Burkhead's occurred at Pittsburgh last weekend.