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Patriots host Bills with AFC's top seed at stake

Though the New England Patriots have more important matters season finale with the visiting Buffalo Bills, they probably wouldn't mind getting a little payback in the process.

New England has lost just two games against AFC teams during a another banner pre-playoff campaign that has the perennial powerhouses on the verge of claiming home-field advantage in the conference for the upcoming postseason, and one of them came at the hands of the long-suffering Bills in a 34-31 thriller held in upstate New York in Week 3. Buffalo scored 17 points in the fourth quarter in that see-saw battle, with now-injured kicker Rian Lindell deciding the contest on a short field goal as time expired.

The Patriots have bounced back strongly from that stinging setback, winning 10 of their 12 games afterward and entering Sunday's clash having ripped off seven consecutive victories to earn the AFC's top record at the moment. If able to best a Buffalo squad they've traditionally dominated, the East division champions would clinch the conference's No. 1 playoff seed for the second year in a row.

New England is guaranteed an opening-round bye by virtue of its hard-fought 27-24 comeback triumph over a game Miami team last Saturday in Foxborough, but would be seeded second if it loses this week and either Baltimore or Pittsburgh comes out on top in their Week 17 bouts.

The Bills, on the other hand, have gone in an entirely opposite direction since that breakthrough result back in September, which halted a string of 15 straight losses to the Pats. Buffalo was 3-0 and had high hopes of making a playoff run following that outing, but a disastrous seven-game losing streak marred by several devastating injuries from Nov. 6-Dec. 18 ensured that the annual also-rans would miss out on a postseason trip for a 13th year in a row.

Buffalo finally stopped that slide in a big way this past Saturday, however, pasting AFC West hopeful Denver by a 40-14 count at Ralph Wilson Stadium. A usually troublesome defense set the tone for the rout by inducing four costly turnovers out of Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, two of which were returned for touchdowns within an 18-second span in the fourth quarter to put the contest out of reach.

"It's special," said Bills outside linebacker Spencer Johnson, who accounted for the final score by taking back a Tebow fumble 17 yards. "We had a monkey on our back for a long time for a bunch of weeks. It feels good for the defense to play like we did and how we knew were capable of playing. We finally put together all the pieces and had a dominant performance."

Buffalo's defense also rose to the occasion in the first matchup with the Patriots, recording four interceptions of Pro Bowl quarterback Tom Brady that were converted into 24 points.

"I think they've really done a great job scoring points off turnovers and getting a bunch of turnovers," said Brady of the Bills. "They certainly take advantage of bad offensive football, which we played plenty of that in our first game. They have some very skilled players, guys that if you make a mistake, they're ready to capitalize, especially the guys in the secondary. Hopefully there's no repeat performance."

New England has been far more careful with the football in recent weeks, however. The Patriots have just two giveaways during their seven-game tear, in which Brady has amassed a stellar 16-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and thrown for over 300 yards five times. The two-time league MVP enters Sunday's tilt needing just 103 yards for his first career 5,000-yard season.

Also working in New England's favor is its sustained success at Gillette Stadium, where the team has prevailed in 23 of its last 24 bouts in regular- season play. The Bills are 0-9 all-time at the venue and have dropped 10 straight overall to the Patriots on the road.

SERIES HISTORY

The Patriots own a 60-41-1 advantage over the Bills in a series that dates back to 1960 and as previously stated, had bested Buffalo 15 straight times prior to their narrow loss at Ralph Wilson Stadium in September. New England extended its home winning streak over the Bills with a 38-30 decision last season, with Buffalo not having topped the Patriots as the visitor since a 16-13 overtime result at Foxboro Stadium on Nov. 5, 2000. The Bills also haven't swept a home-and-home set from New England since 1999.

These longtime AFC East rivals have faced one another just once in the postseason, a 26-8 Patriots' verdict on the road in a 1963 AFL Division Playoff.

New England head coach Bill Belichick sports a 20-4 career record against the Bills, including a stellar 20-3 mark during his 11-year tenure with the Pats. Buffalo's Chan Gailey is 1-3 lifetime versus New England, with the first defeat a 13-6 setback while then the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys in 1999, and is 1-2 in head-to-head bouts with Belichick.

WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL

While the defense's ability to come up with big plays in last week's dismantling of the Broncos was welcome news to Gailey, he also had to be encouraged by his team's showing on the other side of the ball. The Bills rushed for 160 yards in the victory, their highest output since the season's second game, and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (3525 passing yards, 22 TD, 19 INT) put together an error-free effort after struggling with turnovers over the course of the losing streak. Young running back C.J. Spiller (501 rushing yards, 35 receptions, 5 total TD) came through with a second straight impressive performance to lead the way against Denver, with the 2010 first- round pick following up a career-high 167 yards from scrimmage (91 rushing, 76 receiving) in a Week 15 loss to Miami by gashing the Broncos for a personal- best 111 rushing yards and a touchdown on only 16 carries. Wide receiver Stevie Johnson (72 receptions, 964 yards, 6 TD) added 92 receiving yards on four catches to the win and is the preferred target for Fitzpatrick, who lit up New England's shaky secondary for a season-high 369 yards and two scores in the first meeting but threw 12 interceptions during the team's sequence of seven straight defeats. No. 2 receiver David Nelson (59 receptions, 5 TD) also set a new career standard in the initial go-around with the Pats by hauling in six passes for 84 yards, while a no-name offensive line that yielded just 21 sacks in 2011 has generally been solid in protection, though the group will have to make do without a pair of starters this week with left tackle Demetrius Bell and center Kraig Urbik both battling knee injuries.

If there's one concern the Patriots have heading into the postseason, it's a defense that's given up the most total yards (411.7 ypg) and passing yards (293.8 ypg) in the NFL this year and failed to come up with any key late stops in Buffalo's comeback win back in Week 3. The most glaring sore spots have been a secondary that's been forced to rely on marginally-talented players at both safety positions due to injuries and a pass rush that was dealt a huge blow by the season-ending loss of veteran defensive end Andre Carter two weeks ago. New England was still able to record five sacks of Miami's Matt Moore last Saturday in its first test without its top pass rusher, though the Dolphins' quarterback did put up 294 yards and three touchdowns in a losing cause and the Pats had a hard time handling physical wide receiver Brandon Marshall (7 receptions, 156 yards, 1 TD). The unit has snared 19 interceptions on the season, tied with the Bills for fifth-best in the league, and cornerback Kyle Arrington (82 tackles, 7 INT, 13 PD) is tops among individuals in that category as the backfield's unquestioned bright spot. Tackle Vince Wilfork (50 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 INT) was named to his fourth career Pro Bowl on Tuesday and serves as the anchor for a front seven that's permitted an unwanted 179 rushing yards per game over the last three weeks, with Carter tabbed to the AFC roster as well.

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL

No team possesses more offensive firepower in the AFC than do the Patriots, with Brady (4897 passing yards, 36 TD, 11 INT) expertly directing a multi- faceted attack that's second in the NFL in both total yards (424.5 ypg) and passing yards (316.1 ypg) and has racked up 31 or more points in six of the last seven games. The heralded quarterback is also aided by having two of the best of their respective positions to work with in slot receiver Wes Welker (116 receptions, 1518 yards, 9 TD) and tight end Rob Gronkowski (82 receptions, 1219 yards, 15 TD), both of whom were no-brainer Pro Bowl selections along with Brady. Welker enters the weekend atop the league in both catches and receiving yards and was unstoppable in September's loss to the Bills, tallying a club- record 217 yards and two touchdowns on an incredible 16 receptions, while the Buffalo-area native Gronkowski toasted his hometown team for 109 yards and two scores on seven grabs in that game and is tied for the NFL lead in touchdown catches. Brady will make the opposition pay if it decides to key on those two, however, as evidenced by tight end Aaron Hernandez's (72 receptions, 6 TD) nine-catch, 129-outburst against Denver two weeks back, and veteran wideout Deion Branch (51 receptions, 5 TD) provides another reliable alternative for New England's invaluable field general. The running back committee has seen somewhat of a changing of the guard lately, with rookie Stevan Ridley (360 rushing yards, 1 TD) getting more work at the expense of touchdown specialist BenJarvus Green-Ellis (645 rushing yards, 9 TD), though overachiever Danny Woodhead (346 rushing yards, 1 TD, 16 receptions) continues to be the main option on passing downs.

Like the Patriots, the Buffalo defense can be susceptible to allowing yards in bunches as well as demonstrating a knack for being opportunistic. The Bills' 30 takeaways in 2011 are tied with New England for the most in the AFC, and their four interceptions of Brady in Week 3 were instrumental in pulling off that upset. Buffalo did surrender four touchdown passes in that game, however, and did not register a sack, and its 25 quarterback takedowns on the season are near the bottom of the league. Getting pressure wasn't a problem last week, however, thanks to a three-sack display by outside linebacker Chris Kelsay (37 tackles, 5 sacks) in which the converted end also forced a fumble that Spencer Johnson (45 tackles, 2 sacks) took back for a touchdown. Kelsay trails only promising rookie tackle Marcell Dareus (42 tackles, 5.5 sacks) for the club lead in sacks, while the safety tandem of George Wilson (96 tackles, 4 INT) and Jairus Byrd (95 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) has combined for seven picks. Buffalo ranks just 28th in run defense (139.1 ypg) but limited the Pats to 79 yards on the ground in the first clash, with inside linebacker Nick Barnett (119 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) compiling 11 tackles to lead the charge.

KEYS TO THE GAME

Turnovers. The Bills were in danger of being blown out of the first game with New England after falling behind 21-0 midway through the second quarter, but completely turned the tide because of the defense's success at inducing mistakes out of the normally-steady Brady. How Buffalo fares in the turnover battle usually determines its overall result, as the Bills have a plus-13 takeaway-to-giveaway ratio in their six wins and are minus-nine that department over their nine losses.

Fitzpatrick. The inconsistent quarterback's on-point performance was also a major factor in Buffalo's Week 3 upset of the Patriots, but he'll have to be sharp once again for his team to keep up with the AFC's highest scoring team and the Bills can't count on Brady repeating his miscues from the last meeting. Fourteen of Fitzpatrick's 19 interceptions on the season have come in Buffalo defeats.

Buffalo's running game. The Bills need to keep New England's high-powered offense off the field as much as possible by controlling the clock, and the best way of doing so would be by Spiller maintaining his strong recent form. It's also a proven formula for success, as Buffalo is 5-1 this season when rushing for 138 yards or more.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Though the Bills gave New England all it could handle and more back in September, don't expect a duplication of that outcome this week. A rash of injuries have rendered Buffalo a shell of its early-season self, and the Patriots don't lose at home against non-contenders in situations that mean something. And with a chance to stay in their own backyard throughout the playoffs, this game does carry a great deal of importance for the Patriots. Buffalo's defense will be hard pressed to prevent Brady and his cast of weapons from doing considerable damage, and it's hard to imagine the Bills' erratic offense matching New England on the scoreboard. Since there's the threat of Belichick pulling some regulars in the event the Pats build a comfortable lead, Buffalo may have the opportunity to make the outcome respectable. But a team that's managed just one win since October going on the road against one of the league's elite and coming away with a victory just doesn't seem very plausible.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 31, Bills 20