The New England Patriots will have a third opportunity to clinch the AFC East on Sunday, and this time, they’ll be looking to do so without Josh Gordon.
Gordon’s season — and, perhaps, his NFL career — came to an abrupt end this week when the wide receiver was suspended indefinitely for violating the terms of his reinstatement.
While Gordon takes time away from the field to focus on his mental health, the Patriots will be forced to replace his considerable offensive production (40 catches, team-high 720 yards, three touchdowns in 11 games). We’ll get our first look at how they plan to do so when they welcome the Buffalo Bills to Gillette Stadium in their penultimate game of the regular season.
Time: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
Location: Gillette Stadium
The 9-5 Patriots are pegged as 13 1/2-point favorites over the Bills, whose only two wins in Foxboro during the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick came against Jacoby Brissett in 2016 and in a meaningless Week 17 game in 2014 in which Brady played just one half.
Brady is 29-3 in his career against the Bills, including a 25-6 victory at New Era Field last month.
The Patriots still are very much alive in the race for a first-round playoff bye, but they essentially need a win Sunday to keep pace with the 10-4 Houston Texans, who currently occupy the No. 2 spot in the AFC.
In order for New England to finish in the top two and secure free passage to the divisional round, it would need to win out and have the Texans lose to either the Philadelphia Eagles and Jacksonville Jaguars, or win one of its final two games and have Houston lose both.
The Patriots also have yet to secure their 10th consecutive division title. They can do so with a win or a Miami Dolphins loss.
The Bills have been eliminated from playoff contention.
The Patriots have just one player listed on their injury report: special teamer Brandon King, who’s questionable for this game with a knee injury.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson were removed from the report Friday. Both are expected to suit up for New England.
The Bills ruled cornerback Ryan Lewis out and listed running back Chris Ivory as questionable. Ivory and LeSean McCoy both missed last Sunday’s win over the Detroit Lions, forcing Buffalo to rely on running back Keith Ford, an undrafted rookie who was making his NFL debut.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett, Patriots wide receivers
With no Gordon, it will be on the Patriots’ remaining receivers to pick up the slack. That likely means big boosts in playing time for Hogan and Dorsett, neither of whom has made a significant offensive impact this season. The two have combined for just 15 catches over the last seven games. Patterson could see his role grow, as well. He returned to practice Friday after missing Thursday with an illness.
Josh Allen, Bills quarterback
Allen, who did not play in the first Patriots meeting, has turned heads with his scrambling ability in recent weeks. He ranks second among NFL QBs in rushing yards behind Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson and has surpassed 90 yards on the ground in three of Buffalo’s last four games. Keeping the 6-foot-5 rookie in the pocket will be critical this week for a Patriots defense that’s had issues defending mobile quarterbacks.
James White, Patriots running back
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said this week White “needs to be involved” in New England’s offense, which hasn’t been the case in recent weeks. White has not been the dynamic pass-catcher he was during the first half of the season, when he was on pace to set an NFL record for receptions by a running back.
And when White plays a smaller role in the game plan, the Patriots have had considerably less success this season. They’re 9-0 when White totals 13 or more carries and targets and 0-5 when he has 12 or fewer. Three of those five losses have come in the last five games.
White tied his season high with 10 catches on 13 targets for 79 yards in these teams’ first meeting.
Robert Foster, Bills wide receiver
A virtual unknown just a few short weeks ago, Foster has been one of the NFL’s most dangerous deep threats over the second half of the season, leading all NFL pass-catchers in yards per reception since Week 10 (25.8).
The undrafted Alabama product leads a Bills receiver corps that no longer features Kelvin Benjamin (cut earlier this month), and he’s developed a strong rapport with Allen, who’s completed 73.7 percent of his passes to Foster and 45.3 percent to anyone else.
Cut by the Bills in mid-October, Foster has caught 17 passes on 23 targets for 438 yards and four touchdowns in five games since returning to Buffalo’s roster in November.