- Hey, Buffalo, it was fun while it lasted, right? – (SportsNetwork.com) - Hey, Buffalo, it was fun while it lasted, right?
The NFL's longest running non-playoff participant woke up 1990s echoes for a few weeks during the back half of the 2014 regular season, and actually reached the final two games of the schedule with a mathematical - if not exactly linear - path to the league's post-December Promised Land.
But then the Bills went to Oakland and, well, reality bit.
The drought reached 15 consecutive years after a 26-24 loss to the two-win Raiders and instantly transformed Buffalo's final-week trip to New England from highly anticipated to already forgettable.
"It just breaks your heart," quarterback Kyle Orton said. "It was all there. We just didn't have the execution. And in the end, it cost us."
Orton threw for 329 yards and three touchdowns and was intercepted twice in the game, his 11th start of the season since taking over for benched former first-round draft choice EJ Manuel. The realities of the Week 17 trip to Foxborough raised questions about Manuel perhaps getting another call to start, but Bills coach Doug Marrone said winning still trumps prospecting, even against the Patriots.
"The game means a lot to me. We're going to play the players that we feel give us the best chance to win," Marrone said. "That's just the way that I'm wired and that's my responsibility to the team. We all have a responsibility to each other and I have to make those decisions each week. Right now we still feel that (Orton) gives us the best chance to win in terms of efficiency, control, things of that nature than any other quarterback that we have."
Truth told, it's stopping the other team's quarterback - a fellow named Tom Brady - that'll likely have more impact on whether Buffalo is competitive in its finale. The Bills were gashed for 396 total yards in a 37-22 home loss to New England in Week 6, its second-highest allowance this season.
Buffalo also failed to force a turnover.
Three of the Bills' defensive line players - end Mario Williams, and tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams - were selected to the Pro Bowl. Dareus dinged up a knee in the Oakland game and is questionable against the Patriots.
"We'll just keep progressing with it through the week," Marrone said. "I think it'll go all the way to the end."
It's a different subject, but New England certainly has the same mindset.
The Patriots enter Week 17 having clinched all pertinent playoff possibilities, meaning a No. 1 seed in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout their stay prior to Super Bowl XLIX in Phoenix.
They earned their lofty spot with a 17-16 defeat of the New York Jets last week, combined with Denver's loss to Cincinnati on Monday night. Also, Buffalo has not won a game in Foxborough in 13 tries.
Brady threw for 182 yards and a touchdown and was picked off once against the Jets, but he's memorized the "we're not looking ahead" mantra, in spite of not winning a Super Bowl since the one that followed the 2004 regular season.
"There is plenty of time to think about things down the road," he said. "This isn't the time for it. We've got to go play well this week. That is the attitude and that is what all the leaders of the team have to make sure everyone is on the same page."
It's predictably the same from New England coach Bill Belichick, especially after his team generated a season-low 231 yards on offense against the Jets.
"(We'll) just keep getting ready for Buffalo," he said. "That's what our challenge is. What our position is, it is, but that will all take care of itself in due course. It doesn't really have anything to do with right now."
Belichick conceded he'll "do whatever is best for the team" in terms of who plays and who doesn't against the Bills, which has prompted speculation that tight end Rob Gronkowski will sit, perhaps alongside wide receiver Julian Edelman, offensive lineman Dan Connolly and running back LeGarrette Blount. The latter three each missed last week's game with New York.
Brady had 361 yards passing and four touchdowns in the Week 6 win, which lifted the Patriots to 21-1 in their last 22 games against Buffalo. The Bills, meanwhile, can finish better than .500 for the first time since they went 9-7 in 2004.
"With the (first-round bye), you realize we're going to have a little time to rest up," Brady said. "We just want to go out and play well and see if we can string together as many good plays as possible. (The Bills') defense will challenge you. They've got a good front, one of the best defenses in the league, one of the best defenses we've faced all year."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Keeping it Tight
The most likely scenario for the final game has Gronkowski arriving in uniform, but playing sparingly. Such an approach will not only allow the Patriots to keep their matchup nightmare healthy for January, but also to get another look at Tim Wright, who caught seven passes for 61 yards and a touchdown in his teammate's absence during a Week 8 game with Chicago.
Go for a Run
The Bills somehow made the Raiders look like a run-stopping machine in Week 15, winding up with only 13 rushing yards on 13 attempts. And when the responsibility for winning was left in the hands of Orton, the results were self-explanatory. Buffalo averaged less than three yards a carry in its first meeting with the Patriots earlier this season, so it'll need to improve that mark against better opposition.
The last time the Patriots clinched the No. 1 seed prior to the final kickoff, Brady played two full quarters and part of a third before giving way to then- backup Brian Hoyer. A similar scenario probably occurs this time, with Jimmy Garoppolo taking over at some point to ensure the franchise passer's health into the postseason. After a deflating loss in Oakland and a cross-country trip, Buffalo won't match the output.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Patriots 24, Bills 14