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Jerry Sullivan: A big game for Bills, but not a must-win

Jerry Sullivan

Playoffs? The way the players see it, the Bills have been in the playoffs for awhile now, ever since they fell to 6-6 with a loss at home to the Patriots early in December.

"It's evident," said Micah Hyde, the newly minted Pro Bowl safety. "Everybody in this locker room understands it's a playoff mentality, a playoff game this week. It's been a playoff game the last couple of weeks. So everyone's aware of the situation we're in.

"Win or go home."

That's been the refrain since the first Patriots game. Every game is a crisis, a must-win. It's a useful way to rally the troops, to create a common, unified sense of purpose. As Hyde said, they've taken that mentality onto the field from the season opener. Sean McDermott has it placed above their lockers as a reminder: "Playoff caliber."

But the fact is, Sunday's game in Foxborough is not a must-win game. Sure, it would be an historic win, lift them to 9-6 and put them on the verge of the playoffs. But the analytics say they'll still have a good chance to break the playoff drought if they lose to the Patriots and win the season finale at Miami the following week.

In fact, if the Bills were going to split their remaining two games, it would be better to lose to the Pats than the Dolphins. The analytics site FiveThirtyEight calculates that they have a 44 percent chance to get in if they beat New England and lose to Miami, and a 60 percent chance if they lose Sunday but win at the Dolphins on New Year's Eve.

Look, I don't fully understand the reasoning behind these figures. It has a lot to do with what happens with other teams, particularly the Ravens. But FiveThirtyEight is pretty reliable at predicting major elections, so I'll defer to them on the matter.

So it's only natural to wonder if this might ease the sense or urgency, or if the Bills might even — gasp! — be looking past the Pats this week. When I asked Sean McDermott, he acted as if I'd questioned the very meaning of Christmas, or worse yet, the Process.

"No," McDermott said with a dismissive smile. "Every game is important. We have a healthy respect for this opponent."

Richie Incognito wasn't buying the look-ahead angle, either. The Pro Bowl guard was in full must-win mode.

"You can't look past the Patriots," he said, laughing. "They're the AFC East champs for, like, the 90th time in a row, man. You do not look past these people."

Still, it's understandable if any rational person would be tempted to put this one in the loss column and move on to the season finale. I understand the notion of "any given Sunday," but the Patriots lose a significant conference game at Gillette Stadium about as often as the Republicans lose a senate race in Louisiana.

You know how long it has been since the Pats lost a conference home game in December with playoff positioning on the line? Try 2002, the second year Tom Brady was the starting quarterback. They haven't lost any regular-season home game to an AFC East opponent with Brady playing a full game since the Jets won there in 2006.

Brady is 27-3 against the Bills. One of those losses came in the 2014 finale, when the Pats had home field sewn up for the playoffs. Brady played a half, and Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman didn't play at all. The Bills have never beaten the Pats in a game that mattered in the second half of a season since Brady became the man.

Incognito's math was a little off. The Patriots have won nine straight division titles, not 90. It's still an NFL record. At 11-3, they're on the verge of an eighth straight season with 12 or more victories, which would be another record.

Brady is tied with Peyton Manning, with seven straight 12-win seasons and 11 such seasons overall. It's another chance to distance himself from Manning, his old rival, who is no longer included in debates about whether he or Brady is the greatest QB of all time.

Here's an esoteric stat: The Pats have reached the 11-win mark before their final game 11 times in the Brady-Belichick era. They're 11-0 in the next game, the one that got them to 12. So it's hard to imagine them letting down Sunday against a Bills team they beat by 20 points in Buffalo three weeks ago — a potential playoff team, but essentially an average one.

Bill Belichick is a great coach, maybe the best ever, but he's even more dangerous later in the season, and in a division rematch. On the Wednesday conference call with the Buffalo media, Belichick went on at length about the Bills' defense, how "well-coordinated and well-coached" it was and what a great job they do of disguising their looks.

It sounded as if the hooded genius was telling McDermott that he understands their defense as well as the Bills do — which is probably true at this point. Belichick always has an agenda. He's always searching for the tiniest edge, so it wouldn't surprise me if he was trying to get in the Bills' heads and make them adjust their defensive scheme.

Belichick never gives you the same look the second time around. He's at his best when he has more time to prepare, which is why he's the winningest postseason coach of all time. The Bills aren't the only ones who treat every December game like a playoff week. The Patriots have been doing it for the entire length of the Bills' 17-year playoff drought.

On Sunday, the Pats will be playing their first home game since Nov. 26, and only their second at Gillette since October. They finish with home games against the Bills and Jets, needing to continue their home dominance in the division to finish 13-3 and secure home-field advantage for the AFC playoffs in their quest to reach a seventh straight AFC title game. You can bet they won't be looking past the Bills.

"We expect everybody's best each week," Belichick said, "and I'm sure we'll get that from Buffalo. They play well every week. They play hard. They're tough. They're physical, they're smart, they make it harder on every team and I'm sure they'll do the same for us.

"We need to play better than we did up there three weeks ago, I know that. So that's what we're preparing for, to try to play our best game of the year."

On the day before Christmas, with the playoffs looming and so much at stake, chances are the Patriots will do just that. And if the Bills lose, they'll be telling us how next week's game in Miami is the real must-win. Maybe McDermott should rest his starters.

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