CINCINNATI — The New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills have squared off at Gillette Stadium in each of the last two Decembers.
To say this one feels different would be an understatement.
The 11-3 Patriots will host the 10-4 Bills on Saturday afternoon (4:30 p.m. ET kickoff) in a matchup that will go a long way toward determining the complexion of the AFC playoff field.
“(It’s) humongous. It’s the biggest game of the year,” Patriots safety Duron Harmon said after his team defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 34-13 on Sunday to snap a two-game losing skid and clinch a playoff spot. “It’s for the division. Most likely, it’s going to be for the No. 2 spot in the playoffs. A lot goes into this game, and we know that. But we’re excited for this opportunity. It’s going to be the biggest challenge we’ve had all year. …
“It’s a playoff game. It’s a playoff game before the playoffs, and you’ve got to approach it that way.”
The Bills secured their playoff berth — and their first 10-win season since 1999 — in primetime Sunday, forcing five turnovers in a 17-10 road win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. They’re still in contention for their first AFC East title since 1995 with two games left to play.
That milestone remains a long shot, however, thanks to the NFL’s tiebreaker procedures. A quick primer:
— The first tiebreaker between teams that finish with identical records is head-to-head. The Patriots won their first matchup with the Bills 16-10 back in Week 4, so a Buffalo win on Saturday only would draw it even.
— The second tiebreaker is divisional games. The Patriots are 4-0 against AFC East teams thus far. The Bills are 3-1. Regardless of Saturday’s result, if New England beats the 3-11 Miami Dolphins at home in Week 17, it can do no worse than tie on this front.
— The third tiebreaker is record in games against common opponents. The Patriots are 10-1 there, with their lone loss coming against the Baltimore Ravens. The Bills are 8-3 with losses to the Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles. As long as the Patriots beat the Dolphins in Week 17, they’ll have the edge in this category regardless.
— A Patriots win Saturday would clinch their 11th consecutive division title.
So, in order for Buffalo to win the AFC East, it would need to defeat New England (and the New York Jets the following week) and hope the Patriots also lose to Miami, a team they demolished 43-0 back in September. The odds of that all happening? Slim.
That doesn’t make this game any less important for the Patriots, however. A loss in either of their final two games would swing the door wide open for the Kansas City Chiefs — 23-16 winners at Gillette in Week 14 — to nab the AFC’s No. 2 seed and the first-round bye that comes with it.
The Patriots, who have not played on wild-card weekend since the 2009 season, currently hold a one-game lead over the 10-4 Chiefs and theoretically still have a shot at home-field advantage, though that would require a full-fledged collapse by the top-seeded Ravens.
“It’s going to be a battle,” Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater said of Saturday’s showdown. “(The Bills are) a great football team. They’re going to give us everything we can handle, and we’re going to have to meet the challenge. But it’s going to be a battle.”