FOXBOROUGH — For the better part of two decades, the AFC East has been a fait accompli for the New England Patriots.
Year after year, the Patriots would dominate and opposing general managers, coaches and quarterbacks were the collateral damage. Then, some time after mid-season, in November, the T-shirt game would arrive.
New England would win, the players would get their latest “AFC East Champions” gear and then everybody would look ahead to the playoffs down the road.
That’s been the story for 16 of the last 18 years since Tom Brady and Bill Belichick started this as a duo 2001. The two times the Patriots didn’t win the division? Way back in 2002, before the dynasty really got going, and in 2008, when Brady missed essentially the entire season with a torn ACL.
Then came 2019.
The Buffalo Bills proved to be more than bothersome “gnats” after their late September game in Orchard Park, N.Y.
They are, for the first time in nearly two full decades, contenders. And Saturday, at Gillette Stadium, might be the most important AFC East game of the Brady-Belichick era.
“Absolutely. That’s what we’re here for,” said Belichick, when asked if this game had a playoff aura about it.
“You work all year to put yourself in a position to play in a game like this where you can win the division,” said Belichick. “So, you couldn’t say that in Week 4, or Week 6, or Week 8 – whatever it was. Well, we’re saying that now, so now is the time for us to play and coach our best football. That’s what we’re all here for.”
While the Patriots probably win the AFC East regardless of how Saturday’s game plays out — one win over Buffalo or Miami would clinch the title — a loss would be a devastating setback to their long-term goals.
If the Patriots clinch their 17th divisional title since 2001 and maintain the No. 2 seed in the AFC by sweeping the last two games, they stave off the Kansas City Chiefs in the race for the first round bye.
Should New England lose, however, things get complicated and the Chiefs would control the No. 2 seed by winning out. And the Patriots would be Wild Card-bound for the first time since 2009.
Coming into the season, few would have predicted this Week 16 game with the Bills would have such high stakes, and fewer would have expected such a compelling match-up. Yet it’s clear now that the Bills (10-4) are legit, boasting a defense that ranks second in the NFL in points allowed (15.9 points per game) and third in yards allowed (291.9 yards per game).
The last time New England and Buffalo met in Week 4, the Bills held New England’s offense to just nine points, with the eventual game-winning touchdown coming on special teams via a blocked punt in the eventual 16-10 win. The Buffalo defense has remained consistent ever since, and Belichick said that very little has changed since that last meeting.
“They virtually have had no injuries. I mean, it’s the exact same – it’s really the same players,” Belichick said. “[Ed] Oliver’s obviously gained a lot of experience and he’s a good player, but it’s really pretty much the same group. They’ve been very healthy, have missed very little time. Their rotations are pretty solid and consistent because they’ve had all those guys available.”
Though history suggests how this game will end, it’s clear that this T-shirt game won’t be anything like the others. After years of cruising to the top of the AFC East heap, the Patriots appreciate the challenge laid out before them.
“Everybody puts a lot into it and that’s for moments like this,” Brady said. “You work out all off-season, you train to be a part of these games. And this is a big game against a very good team. That’s what it’s all about. That’s why we’re here, to play in games like this.”
Mac Cerullo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.