1. Prepare for the unknown. New England has wrapped up home-field advantage throughout the postseason as the AFC’s top seed. As such, there isn’t much incentive for coach Bill Belichick to play his starters for very long – if at all. Most notably, that includes quarterback Tom Brady, pictured. Under Belichick, the Patriots have gone into Week 17 with their playoff seeding set three other times. Twice, Brady started but didn’t finish. In 2007, he played the entire game – but New England was going for a perfect 16-0 season. That means the Bills will need to prepare for rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo on Sunday. He’s played in five games in mop-up duty, completing 9 of 10 passes for 92 yards.
2. Patriots put a premium on points against. The New England defense ranks eighth in the league in scoring average, giving up 19.7 points per game. A big reason for that is its improved performance in the red zone. Over the last five games, it has given up just one touchdown in the red zone on 12 opportunities by their opponents. That has helped them jump up from 20th in red zone touchdown percentage against to No. 6, at 45.5 percent. That’s not good news for a Buffalo offense that never was able to solve its red-zone problems this year. The Bills are scoring touchdowns on just 40.8 percent of their trips inside the 20, which ranks 31st in the league.
3. Time has come for the Kyle Orton era to end. Even if Brady doesn’t play, the Bills still might not have the best quarterback on the field Sunday. Kyle Orton’s run as Buffalo’s starter should end after 12 games. Blame can be spread throughout the offense for its ineptitude, but the bulk of it needs to fall on Orton. Even the hint of a pass rush has him turtling for a sack, or taking the easiest check-down route available. And his infamous slide against Denver makes it easy to question his competitive spirit (as does skipping all of training camp) – not something to do lightly when it comes to a professional athlete. Orton is due to count $7 million on the 2015 salary cap if he exercises his player option, but the Bills can and should reduce that cap hit to $1.5 million by releasing him after the year.
4. Special teams are strong across the board. New England’s victory last week against the New York Jets came thanks to a blocked field goal by Vince Wilfork. It was the Patriots’ fourth blocked field goal, to go along with one blocked punt. Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski beat out Bills kicker Dan Carpenter for a spot in the Pro Bowl, while New England’s return and coverage units are both solid. New England’s average drive start of the 30.8-yard line is second in the NFL, while their opponent’s start of the 25.2-yard line is the best in the league.
5. A winning record is still something. Although the goal for this season was the postseason and the Bills can’t get there, a victory Sunday would give them a 9-7 finish – their first winning record since 2004. It would also mark their first win in Gillette Stadium – which opened in 2002. Those would not be insignificant accomplishments. “The character of this team, the integrity, it’s on us to go out there and put a great performance together,” Bills coach Doug Marrone said. “That’s what we have to do.”
Outlook: A New England victory would be its 100th at home since 2002, against just 18 losses. Given that history, it’s foolish to predict a Bills victory – even if the Patriots don’t have anything to play for.
Prediction: Patriots 23, Bills 20.