Pats face finale with playoff seeding at stake
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, right, celebrates with running back LeGarrette Blount after Blount scored a touchdown in the second half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady throws to a receiver in the second half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, right, rushes past Baltimore Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
FOXBOROUGH — Young or old, Patriots players have the same view of looking ahead to the playoffs.
The Patriots already have won their fifth straight AFC East title and can clinch their eighth first-round bye in 14 seasons on Sunday. But they’re not celebrating anything.
They’re focused on their next game, against the Buffalo Bills, where a loss could send them to a wild-card game and deprive them of an extra week to study for their next opponent, and let their bruises heal.
“The Patriots always have their ways of getting to the playoffs so, coming in, I knew we were a playoff team,” rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson said, but “we definitely can’t look past Buffalo.”
Dobson, a second-round draft choice, was 9 years old when Patriots defensive end Andre Carter was drafted in the first round by San Francisco.
“We’re not even thinking about the bye or not having the bye. We can’t overlook the present,” the 13-year veteran said, “Right now our focus is Buffalo and only Buffalo.”
Special teams captain Matthew Slater is in his sixth season and senses some excitement among both the newcomers and the old-timers, but knows they can’t get carried away.
“As older guys, we understand how hard it is to get to the playoffs and there’s no guarantee that you get there,” he said. “As younger guys, it’s the first time that some of them are experiencing the playoffs, so they’re excited about the opportunity. You work for this. You work for the postseason. You work for Week 17 late in the season.
“This is why you play the game. So if you’re not excited about these games coming up here down the stretch, starting with Buffalo, then you’re in the wrong business.”
The Patriots (11-4) know they’re in the playoffs. Just where they get seeded is far from certain.
They can finish in any of the top four spots in the AFC, with only the first two getting byes.
They would get:
• the No. 1 spot and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs if they win and Denver (12-3) loses.
• the No. 2 spot if they win or tie and Denver wins, or if they lose and Cincinnati (10-5) and Indianapolis (10-5) lose or tie.
• the No. 3 spot if they lose, Cincinnati wins and Indianapolis loses.
• the No. 4 spot if they lose and Cincinnati and Indianapolis win.
“We always say that as the season goes on, the games only get bigger and bigger and bigger, and I think that is this week, too,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “We’ve worked too hard for too long to get to this point.
“We’ve got a great opportunity ahead of us, and you just don’t want to go out there and not give it your best and put out an effort that’s less than 100 percent of what you’re capable of, because, like I said, it’s been 11 months of work to get us back to this point.”
The Patriots got a bye in seven of the 13 full seasons since Bill Belichick became coach in 2000, including the five seasons in which they reached the Super Bowl. They played three wild-card games, winning two. And they missed the playoffs three times.
They already may have clinched a bye by the time their late afternoon game starts Sunday. If Baltimore beats or ties Cincinnati and Jacksonville beats or ties Indianapolis, the Patriots can finish no worse than second. They would move into the top spot if they win and Oakland upsets Denver in a game starting the same time as theirs.
That’s too many possibilities for Belichick’s players to consider.
The Patriots’ offense must concentrate on keeping the Bills, who lead the NFL in sacks, off Brady. The defense must focus on stopping a running attack that gained 401 yards in its last two games, both victories.
And Buffalo did beat Miami 19-0 last Sunday one week after Miami beat New England 24-20.
“You definitely want to be playing well down the stretch,” Slater said. “Every game means so much and then once you get in the playoffs (with) every game either the season goes on or it’s over.
“We can’t be worried about we’re getting the bye, we’re not getting the bye. We’ve just got to play Buffalo and what happens, happens.”