FOXBORO — For nine straight years, the final few weeks of the regular season for the Patriots have included the celebration of an AFC East title and typically an accompanying first-round bye in the playoffs.
New England can lock up a 10th consecutive division crown Sunday with a win or tie against Buffalo, or a Miami loss or tie when it hosts Jacksonville. The Patriots would also become the first franchise in NFL history to earn a playoff berth in 10 straight seasons.
But they enter the final two weeks of the regular season needing help to avoid playing in the wild-card round of the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Following back-to-back losses at Miami and Pittsburgh , New England (9-5) began Week 16 on track to be the No. 3 seed in the AFC behind Kansas City (11-3) and Houston (10-4).
The Patriots have not been a wild-card team since 2009, when they were blown out by Baltimore. They also failed to make it to the Super Bowl the other two times under coach Bill Belichick (2005 and 2006) that they played during the opening weekend of the postseason. New England has never started the postseason on the road with Belichick the coach and Tom Brady the quarterback.
The first step to New England avoiding those fates is by continuing its dominance against the Bills (5-9), a team it has beaten four straight times — including a 25-6 win at Buffalo in October. It was one of the few successes the Patriots had on the road this season, where they’ve gone just 3-5.
While they will be at home Sunday and for their regular-season finale on Dec. 30 against the Jets, coach Bill Belichick is not counting it as an advantage.
“I think playing well creates an advantage,” he said.
New England is as healthy as it’s been all season, but will have to adapt after receiver Josh Gordon was suspended indefinitely by the NFL on Thursday for violating an agreement that allowed him to play after multiple drug suspensions.
Gordon was thriving in New England, where he landed in September in a trade after the Browns felt it was time to cut ties. In 11 starts with the Patriots, he had 40 receptions for 720 yards and three touchdowns, five years removed from an All-Pro season in 2013 with 87 catches for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns.
Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said Buffalo, which is coming off a close win over Detroit last week, is embracing the role of spoiler.
“It’s huge,” Alexander said. “Obviously, they’ve been the standard of our division for the last 15 years, and they’re in the division chase. So for us to go up there and be able to beat them would be huge obviously for this city, for our team and organization. Because they’re a team that’s really had our number since I’ve been here.”
Here are some things to watch for in Sunday’s game:
WHO STEPS UP?
With Gordon out, Brady will be looking for someone to fill his production for the remainder of the season. That will likely mean a lot more will be put on veteran receiver Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski, though both struggled at times this season. Edelman has 63 catches for 711 yards and four touchdowns, while Gronkowski has 45 catches for 658 yards and three TDs.
But Gronk was limited again this week by ankle and back issues. And between them, they have just two touchdowns over the past three games.
With rookie quarterback Josh Allen back on the field for four games since missing four with a sprained right elbow, the Bills’ offense is improving despite RB LeSean McCoy’s ongoing struggles.
Allen is 57 for 114 for 801 yards, four TDs and four INTs in in his last four starts. Meanwhile, the Bills have topped 100 yards rushing in five straight games, matching last season’s high.
McCoy has topped 100 yards just once — 113 yards and two touchdowns — in a 41-10 win at the New York Jets on Nov. 11. Otherwise, with 479 yards rushing, he’s in jeopardy of finishing with the lowest production of his career. He had 637 yards as a rookie in 2009, when he had four starts in 16 games.
Brady owns a 29-3 record against Bills. His 29 wins against Buffalo are the most victories by a quarterback against a single opponent. Next is Brady’s 26 wins against Jets.
Brady passed for 324 yards in the last meeting with Buffalo and needs 21 to join Peyton Manning (14) and Drew Brees (12) as quarterbacks with 10 seasons of 4,000-plus yards passing.