Consider it an early Christmas present if the Buffalo Bills catch the New England Patriots in “rest’’ mode in late December.
More often than not, the perennial Super Bowl contenders are still fighting for home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs or a first-round bye, so any thought of resting players isn’t a luxury coach Bill Belichick indulges in.
It did occur in 2014 when quarterback Tom Brady played just the first half in a 17-9 Bills’ victory engineered by Kyle Orton.
But in 2011 (49-21 Patriots), 2013 (34-20 Patriots) and 2017 (37-16 Patriots) the Bills faced Santa Tom and his full sleigh of reindeer.
Such will be the case this Sunday when Buffalo (5-9) heads to Gillette Stadium to meet a New England (9-5) team still jostling for playoff positioning and, despite being 6-0 at home, is feeling some heat.
The Patriots are riding a two-game losing streak and not likely to be feeling any Christmas spirit.
With home games against Buffalo and the New York Jets to go, the Patriots are the projected No. 3 seed behind Kansas City (11-3) and Houston (10-4).
They can clinch the AFC East Division with a win over Buffalo and put pressure on the Texans for the first-round bye.
“We are in a tough spot obviously,’’ said wide receiver Matthew Slater after last week’s critical 17-10 loss to Pittsburgh, a game where penalties and lack of Brady magic dust were evident. “We haven’t lost our belief in each other and we still have a lot to play for. There’s really no time for us to feel sorry for ourselves. We need to figure it out and keep competing and keep trying to improve.’’
What do back-to-back losses in December say about the five-time Super Bowl champions, who also lost to Miami on a wild hook-and-ladder play that sealed a 34-33 defeat?
“It says that we got to be better,’’ defensive back Duron Harmon said. “We got to win these (December) games and we know that.’’
Despite Brady not throwing a touchdown pass, the Patriots had no trouble winning 25-6 in Buffalo in Week 8 on Monday Night Football. Four Stephen Gostkowski field goals and Devin McCourty’s 84-yard return of a Derek Anderson interception did the trick.
With rookie quarterback Josh Allen sidelined with an elbow injury, the Bills were in the throes of an offensive funk (three consecutive single-digit games) as dim as Paul Revere’s lantern.
Things have perked up considerably since Allen’s return, giving New England’s No. 23 defense a lot more to prepare for. If the Bills can get running backs LeSean McCoy (hamstring) and Chris Ivory (shoulder) healthy, all the better.
As for Buffalo’s No. 2-ranked defense — and not that it’s cocky given it ranks 19th in points allowed per game at 23.8 — it does have a lot of confidence that it can handle a 41-year-old Brady, 32-year-old Julian Edelman and 29-year-old Rob Gronkowski.
Against the Steelers, Brady hit former Bills receiver Chris Hogan for a 63-yard score. But in the fourth quarter, game on the line, the man with 35 comebacks to his credit, tossed an interception then ended the game with three consecutive incompletions.
“Obviously, we aren’t playing well enough to win, and it comes in a lot of different ways, turnovers, and just missed opportunities,’’ said Brady, who has 24 touchdown passes for the defending AFC champs compared to 32 a year ago. “That’s what it comes down to. Too many plays, opportunities, that we could do something with it and we just don’t. It’s football. We wish outcomes were different. Obviously, this week, last week. We just have to get back to work.’’
One area of work is cutting back on penalties. The Patriots had 14 against the Steelers, including a killer holding call on lineman Shaq Mason on the final drive.
Asked about his team’s mental toughness, a trait that never seems in question on a Bill Belichick team, Belichick said: “There’s always room for improvement.’’
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