With the AFC East still up in the air, Patriots and Bills players needed no reminder of what was at stake in this Saturday's rivalry game. The division title and playoff bye weeks are still on the line.
After getting 15-straight wins over the Bills from 2003-2010, the Patriots are 14-3 against them in the last nine seasons. But since Sean McDermott took over in 2017, the games have gotten tighter, and with the Bills qualifying for the playoffs for the second time in three seasons, the Patriots might finally have a suitable division rival.
Saturday's outcome could set the trajectory of that rivalry for the coming years. Coach McDermott acknowledged the Patriots success but didn't overstate the importance of this one game.
"It's an opportunity for us to continue to grow as football team," said McDermott. "We certainly respect the Patriots; they've reigned over this division, by far, for a long time. So, to have a game like this at this point in the season, our players have worked hard for it. So, you earn everything you get in this league, and so they've earned that, but we're going to have to earn it this weekend because the Patriots, they play well, and especially down-the-stretch."
Meaningful football games in late December might be an anomaly for the Patriots veterans but the magnitude of the game was not lost on them.
"It's a playoff game," summed up Stephon Gilmore and Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes felt the same.
"It's not like we've proven much," acknowledged Hughes. "We've just been knocking down the challenges that have been in front of us. In order for us to get to where we want to go next - that's to hang a banner up here - we have to handle the Patriots. ... This is the playoffs for us. Playoffs start early."
Perhaps the key player for New England is their leading receiver and most valuable offensive player, Julian Edelman. The receiver has battled through various injuries all year and is still on pace to set career highs for catches and yardage. Edelman didn't miss any practice this week and seems poised to tough out another game despite injuries.
"This is the time, if you want to play football, this is why you play football, it's for these kinds of games," said Julian Edelman after practice on Thursday. "This is a big time game against a very good opponent that is playing very well. It's one of those things where if you're not urgent and you gotta be told to be urgent you're in the wrong job."
In his 19th season as a starter, Tom Brady understands what's on the line against the Bills, a team he's beaten 31 times in his career, more than any other team.
"It's a big game for both teams, so we're going to go out there and try to play our best," said Brady on Thursday. "This is a great team that's been playing really well all year. They've got a great defense. It's going to be a tough challenge.
"I think everybody puts a lot into it and that's for moments like this. Everyone – you work out all offseason, you train to be a part of these games. And this is a big game against a very good team. That's what it's all about. That's why we're here, to play in games like this."
Coach Bill Belichick echoed his quarterback and receiver's thoughts.
"You work all year to put yourself in a position to play in a game like this where you can win the division," said Belichick. "So, you couldn't say that in Week 4, or Week 6, or Week 8 – whatever it was. Well, we're saying that now, so now is the time for us to play and coach our best football. That's what we're all here for."
Practice & Injury Report
Jonathan Jones was once again missing from practice on Thursday and was ruled out on the injury report. With Jason McCourty still on the injury report, it could make for some interesting matchup questions against the Bills. Without McCourty the Patriots could be forced to use rookie JoeJuan Williams in a significant role after he's seen action in just 7 games and has gotten 36 snaps on defense. Expect the team to lean into their deep safety group, including Terrence Brooks.
DB Jonathan Jones, Groin (DNP)
No Players Listed.
LB Ja'Whaun Bentley, Knee (LP)
LB Jamie Collins, Shoulder (LP)
WR Julian Edelman, Knee / Shoulder (LP)
CB Jason McCourty, Groin (LP)
Presser Sound Bites
Bill Belichick to Megan O'Brien about managing injuries at this time of year:
"[N]obody's 100 percent. Everybody's played a lot of football, practiced a lot of football, and it's been basically week-after-week other than the one bye week. So, that's a cumulative thing and we do the best we can each week to manage all the things that you just talked about. Each individual player's situation, what the team needs, what type of practice schedule, or what type of preparation we're on, and how to get the most out of the team and the players, and to be ready to go on Sunday. So, it's really an individual, daily answer to that question. What's the player's situation; what are we working on; what's his role; what do we need him for; can he do it? I mean, if he can't do it, then that answers that. If he can do some things but not others, then how important is it for him to do those things? Can we get him the next day, can we not get him the next day, so forth."