FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Just as the regular season started, it will end with the Patriots taking on the Buffalo Bills, their division foes who are aiming to conclude 2013 on a high note.
The first time these two met, the Patriots eked out a 23-21 win on a last-second field goal from kicker Stephen Gostkowski.
Running back Shane Vereen and wide receiver Julian Edelman were stars that day. Vereen surpassed the 100-yard mark on the ground and added seven catches, while Edelman scored both of the team's touchdowns.
As it would turn out, a theme of the Patriots' 2013 season has been close victories and offensive performances catalyzed by Vereen and Edelman.
This time around, the postseason stakes are clear for the Patriots, who can clinch at least a top-two seed in the AFC with a win. In fact, by the time kickoff rolls around, the Patriots could have a top-two seed wrapped up (if both Indianapolis and Cincinnati lose in the 1 p.m. EST time slot), but they aren't going to leave anything to chance and also can earn the top AFC seed if they win and the Broncos lose.
Here's what we'll be watching for in Sunday's significant finale.
1. Protecting Brady. No hyperbole here: the Bills have been as good as any team in the NFL at generating pressure this season. They lead the league with 56 sacks, but that's not the only evidence of their pass-rushing prowess. Schematically, the Bills are a pressure-oriented group led by coordinator Mike Pettine and have impressive personnel among their edge rushers (Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes) and interior penetrators (Kyle Williams and Marcel Dareus). Beyond that, they generate pressure from all three levels, as rookie cornerback Nickell Robey has three sacks over his past two games. If the Patriots are again without left tackle Nate Solder (concussion), it'll be a tall order to slow down this group.
2. Safety net? With Devin McCourty (concussion) doubtful for Sunday, it'll likely be rookie Duron Harmon starting alongside Steve Gregory. In speaking with Harmon and head coach Bill Belichick this week, they echoed that within the Patriots' defense, the two safety positions -- free and strong -- are in many ways interchangeable. The strong safety has to be able to handle free safety responsibilities (deep-field coverage) on some plays, and vice versa. Harmon has played both free and strong safety at points this season, as he did during his college career at Rutgers.
3. Running with purpose. The Patriots set the tempo against the Ravens with their commitment to the ground game early and often last week. The Bills have a disruptive front seven that can be difficult to move around, but will the Patriots try to spin the offensive wheels early by attacking that front seven on the ground? If so, LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley would be the pair responsible for carrying the heavy ground load once again.
4. Red zone success? The red zone struggles of the Patriots' offense without Rob Gronkowski were well chronicled leading up to Week 16, but they may have climbed over the hump; they finished a perfect 3-for-3 in the red zone on the strength of two Blount touchdown runs and a Brady pass to Shane Vereen for a 4-yard score. The test will be to sustain such success, as touchdowns rather than field goals can dictate the difference in close games, as the Patriots have seen throughout the season.
5. Limit explosive plays from Spiller. Bill Belichick talked openly about his defense's improvement in the vertical passing game this season compared to last, stressing the importance of limiting plays that can change the course of a game immediately. While the Bills' passing attack has had to endure through various personnel considerations this year, notably the injuries to EJ Manuel, the running game poses one of the most explosive threats in the NFL. C.J. Spiller has had a quieter year than most forecasted for him, but a Week 13 game against Atlanta that was played in Toronto served as a reminder of just how potent he can be. He ripped off a 77-yard rush and had an 80-yard reception called back because of a holding penalty that was away from the direct action of the play. The Patriots will aim to contain Spiller and the more rugged, powerful Fred Jackson this Sunday.