Here is what to watch for from the Bills' side:
1. Defense missing starters: The Bills' defense likely will have to pick up where it left off in Oakland, missing defensive tackle Marcell Dareus (doubtful, knee) and cornerback Stephon Gilmore (doubtful, concussion). That will mean more playing time for Stefan Charles, Corbin Bryant, and Ron Brooks. The Raiders had their way with the Bills in the running game after Dareus went down (4.5 yards per carry following his injury) and the Patriots, who ran for 267 yards in the finale last season, could try to take advantage of Dareus' absence. Brooks will also be tested by Tom Brady and the Patriots' high-octane offense.
2. Avoiding a new rushing low: With 1,378 rushing yards entering Sunday, the Bills will need 174 more yards in order to avoid setting a new franchise low for rushing yards in a season. Obviously, that's unlikely to happen. Still, the Bills can bounce back from what has been a downward spiral in the running game since the beginning of the season, hitting a new low with a 13-yard outing last week in Oakland. This could be the final game that C.J. Spiller suits up for the Bills, so it will be a chance for him to make a final impression before he can hit the open market in March.
3. Coming out on top: With a win Sunday, the Bills will finish 9-7 -- their first winning record since 2004. While that's a sign of progress in itself, downing New England on their own turf would also be a mark worth celebrating. The Patriots have won their last 35 home games against AFC opponents, while they are 12-0 against the Bills at Gillette Stadium. In a so-called meaningless game, that provides some motivation for the Bills.
4. What's next? Once the Bills get this game out of the way, their offseason will begin the way it has for the last 15 seasons: out of the playoffs. The dynamic this offseason, though, will be different. Here are some of the questions that will move immediately the forefront once the Bills return to their facility Monday: How will new owner Terry Pegula evaluate the team's work over the past 16 weeks? When will he make a decision about the future of coach Doug Marrone and general manager Doug Whaley? Will he add an experienced football mind to the front office mix or consult one? Answers to those questions should become more apparent in the coming days.
Defensive tackle Marcell Dareus (knee) and cornerback Stephon Gilmore (concussion) were both listed as doubtful on Friday's injury report, in advance of the Bills' trip to New England.
Without Dareus, the Bills will likely use a rotation of Corbin Bryant and Stefan Charles in his place. Without Gilmore, the Bills will most likely turn to Ron Brooks in their starting lineup.
Here is the Bills' full injury report:
DT Marcell Dareus (knee)
CB Stephon Gilmore (concussion)
S Aaron Williams (hip)
K Dan Carpenter (right groin)
On the surface, this game doesn’t mean much. The Patriots have locked up the AFC's top seed and the Bills have been eliminated from the playoffs.
However, Doug Marrone is still out to prove he deserves to stick as head coach next season, while the entire team wants to make a statement by winning in a building where they’ve never won, Gillette Stadium.
That's surely motivation for the Bills, but this is still one of their toughest games of the season.
The Patriots pinned 267 rushing yards on Buffalo’s defense in their Week 17 meeting last season and I think their strategy will be similar this time around. The Bills have allowed 4.7 yards per carry since their bye week, the seventh-worst mark in the NFL over that span. It’s the sort of weakness that New England tends to expose and I can see it happening again Sunday.
My prediction: Patriots 28, Bills 16
"We’re building our roster now, and granted you hate giving up number one picks, but we thought what he brings to us now is worth the low one that we’ll be giving up next year," he said.
With the Bills now eliminated from the playoffs, that pick they'll send to Cleveland will be no lower than No. 20. There is still a wide range, though, on where the Bills will finish in the draft order.
The pick can get as high as No. 14 with a Bills loss Sunday and "help" from other teams with 7-8 and 8-7 records, while it can drop as low as No. 20 with a Bills win and losses by 9-6 teams. Strength of schedule is used as a tiebreaker, with the easier schedule receiving the earlier pick.
Here is the latest update for what choice the Browns will hold in the Bills’ place:
Browns' 2015 first-round draft choice (from Buffalo): No. 16.
Most recent No. 16 overall selections:
With one game remaining, the following Buffalo Bills players are set to cross the finish line unscathed. They have started all 15 games to this point:
WR Sammy Watkins
WR Robert Woods
LT Cordy Glenn
C Eric Wood
RG Erik Pears
RT Seantrel Henderson
DE Mario Williams
DE Jerry Hughes
In addition, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus has started all 15 games this season but his status for Sunday is in doubt. He missed Wednesday's practice with a knee injury.
There are several other players who have played in all 15 games so far, including some with appearances as a reserve:
RB Anthony Dixon
WR Chris Hogan
TE Scott Chandler
OT Chris Hairston
LG Kraig Urbik
DE Manny Lawson
DT Corbin Bryant
DT Stefan Charles
LB Preston Brown
LB Brandon Spikes
CB Corey Graham
CB Nickell Robey
S Duke Williams
K Dan Carpenter
K Jordan Gay
P Colton Schmidt
LS Garrison Sanborn
Overall, 26 Bills have appeared in every game this season. That's tied with the New York Jets for the most in the division. The New England Patriots have 23 players who have started all 15 games to the point, while the Dolphins have 18 such players.
The New England Patriots are locked into the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, while the Buffalo Bills' long shot playoff hopes were dashed last Sunday when they lost in Oakland. So from that standpoint, nothing can be gained when the teams meet up Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
But don't tell that to coaches Bill Belichick and Doug Marrone.
Each in his own way, they have stressed this week that there are no meaningless games in the NFL.
ESPN Nation reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Mike Rodak (Bills) preview the matchup with some bigger-picture thoughts:
Reiss: Mike, with the Bills having been eliminated from the playoffs, it’s time to look to the future. What do you think the team needs to threaten the Patriots for the top spot in the division?
Rodak: The Bills have put a lot of pieces in place, but quarterback isn’t one of them. Taking EJ Manuel in the first round of the 2013 draft was a whiff that put the Bills back three years at that position. Without a first-round pick next May, it’s going to be a challenge for the Bills to find the right quarterback for next season. The reality is that whoever they decide will be their starter -- whether it’s Orton, Manuel, a second-day draft pick, a free agent or a trade acquisition -- will be flawed in some way, and the Bills will still have to make up for it elsewhere on their roster. Jay Cutler and Robert Griffin III have both been the subject of media-based speculation, and at least from this perspective, the Bills should consider taking a shot at both if they’re available on the trade market.
Mike, the Patriots won by the skin of their teeth in the Meadowlands last weekend. Was it an anomaly or true cause for concern for the playoffs?
Reiss: More of the former, but that doesn’t mean some of the issues that cropped up should just be swept under the locker room rug. They have to protect quarterback Tom Brady better, establish more of a running game early and generate more of a consistent pass rush. The Jets often play the Patriots tough, and they won more one-on-one matchups on defense; that's a credit to them. In that sense, it had a little bit of a feel of the past two Super Bowl losses for the Patriots, where struggles up front paralyze the rest of the offense for stretches. The Patriots are searching for some answers and more consistency on offense right now, and the return of injured left guard Dan Connolly (knee) and receiver Julian Edelman (concussion) in the playoffs should help them find them.
Specific to the Bills, things seemed to come together pretty nicely for them on defense this year. What contributed most to that?
Rodak: It starts up front with the defensive line, which just sent three players to the 2015 Pro Bowl this week: Kyle Williams, Mario Williams, and Marcell Dareus. Along with Jerry Hughes, that line has been able to produce all sorts of pressure on quarterbacks this season. When you do that, it takes a tremendous burden off the linebackers and secondary. While there are good players in the Bills’ back seven -- Stephon Gilmore (first) and Aaron Williams (second) are both former high-round picks -- the success of the group as a whole is a result of the talent up front. They set the tone. To Marrone’s credit, he has brought in accomplished coaches from the outside as his defensive coordinators -- Mike Pettine last season and Jim Schwartz this season -- who have done well at maximizing the unit’s strengths.
If the Bills are playing for anything in this game, it’s a chance to win at Gillette Stadium for the first time in that building’s history. Given that the Patriots have now locked up the top seed in the AFC playoffs, do you expect them to take the foot off the gas at all?
Reiss: Yes, I view this game as being similar to a fourth preseason contest when the third preseason game doesn’t go as well as planned. I could envision a scenario where the Patriots want to develop a little momentum on offense, and if that comes early, they start making some personnel changes such as Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski taking a seat. On defense, key players such as cornerback Darrelle Revis and linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower, among others, figure to be "protected" as well. The team also has the luxury of allowing some of its injured players extra time to recover, which I’d expect them to do. So their approach preparation-wise won’t change, but I do believe their personnel-related approach will be different than the norm. How significant, and if Brady and Co. play at all, is obviously something we'll be watching closely.
The Bills don’t have a first-round draft pick in 2015 after trading it to move up five spots for receiver Sammy Watkins. Good trade? Bad trade?
Rodak: Bad trade. General manager Doug Whaley’s reasoning was clear when he swung the deal back in May, but the truth is that it hasn’t panned out. Here’s what Whaley said about the deal right after making it: “The high costs not making the playoffs is something we weighed in and we thought this guy was going to get us to the playoffs.” The Bills, of course, did not make the playoffs this season. Here’s what else Whaley said: “This game is about making plays and surrounding our quarterback with playmakers. He’s automatically going to make our quarterback better and us better as a team.” The Bills benched their quarterback at the time, Manuel, after four games this season, so it’s hard to argue that Watkins made him better. From both of those angles, the trade was a failure that left the organization behind the 8-ball in the 2015 draft.
Let’s look ahead to the playoffs. The Patriots lost to the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens in the past two AFC championship games. If there’s a team in the AFC that could knock them out this year, who do you think it would be?
Reiss: I’ll pick the Patriots, because I believe if they play up to their capabilities, the only team that can beat them is themselves. We spend a lot of time around these parts worrying about “teams you’d like to avoid” or “problem areas that could sink the season,” and part of that is the talk-radio mentality that often sets the agenda. I play along with it at times, too, but I truly think it’s all about the Patriots this year. If forced to pick one team, I’d still go with Denver.
Marks lashed out at the process Wednesday, calling the Pro Bowl "a political thing" that shows the NFL is "not about players and their performances."
Marks was left off the initial Pro Bowl team that was released Tuesday night. He was voted an alternate for the all-star game, which will be played in Glendale, Arizona, in January.
Marks said he would accept an invitation to play in the game, but added that he's lost respect for it.
"I won't hold it in high regards like I used to," he said. "I don't get it. I don't understand it. It's more reputation than based on what you did on the field that season. It's a political thing. It shows that the NFL is all about money. It's not about players and their performances."
Marks has 8½ sacks this season, tied for second in the NFL among interior defensive linemen. Only Buffalo's Marcell Dareus has more (10).
Marks surely was hurt by playing for the small-market Jaguars (3-12) and on a losing team. He finished 13th at his position in fan voting, which makes up one-third of the ballot.
"You play for the guys and you play for the team to win, but the individual goal is to make it to the Pro Bowl," Marks said. "You hang your hat on that. If you have a great season, you're credited by a trip to the Pro Bowl. Now, I just won't hang my hat on that.
"One of the things I did last night, when everything came out and I congratulated the players that made it, was I wanted to make sure that I talked to Jerry Hughes," Marrone said. "Jerry Hughes has had an outstanding year. He really has.
"I think one of the things about this game, because it is a team game, guys go ahead and make [the Pro Bowl], but there's a lot of other people involved that they don't get the credit for it. But they can share at least on the outside knowing they were a part of it, even though, individually, they didn't get there."
Hughes appreciated the call.
"It was huge, turn my phone over and see Coach Marrone showing love and support, that's what you want your head coach to do," he said. "It was a great gesture."
While this Sunday could mark Hughes' last game with the Bills, he wasn't willing to dive into his future on Wednesday.
"I havent really thought about that, this is our last game, AFC East opponent, going to Foxborough to play Tom Brady, so that's going to be fun," he said. "That's what our focus has been -- go up there, collect a win and have fun."
Williams finished Sunday's game in Oakland, playing 66 of 72 snaps.
The Bills were without cornerback Stephon Gilmore and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus in practice on Wednesday, but injured reserve isn't an option for either player since their injuries aren't "major" and thus wouldn't qualify for the designation.
Here is the Bills' full injury report Wednesday:
Did not participate:
DT Marcell Dareus (knee)
CB Stephon Gilmore (concussion protocol)
S Aaron Williams (hip)
K Dan Carpenter (groin)
Defensive tackle Marcell Dareus (knee) and cornerback Stephon Gilmore (concussion protocol) were not spotted on the practice field on Christmas Eve.
Both players left Sunday's loss to the Oakland Raiders with injuries.
The Bills could place either player on injured reserve if they are not able to play in Sunday's game at New England. The Bills do not practice Thursday before holding their final practice of the season Friday.
Patriots: 1st (30.6)
Dolphins: 12th (24.3)
Bills: 18th (21.7)
Jets: 29th (16.4)
Quick-hit thought: This is actually one of the higher-scoring Bills' offenses of the past decade. Since 2005, only the 2011 team (23.3 points per game) has averaged more points.
Bills: 5th (18.7)
Patriots: 8th (19.7)
Dolphins: 17th (22.4)
Jets: 24th (25.1)
Quick-hit thought: As long as the Bills hold the Patriots to fewer than 40 points on Sunday, it will be the first time Buffalo's defense has allowed an average of less than 20 points per game since 2006.
Patriots: 6th (93-of-206, 45.1 percent)
Dolphins: 16th (76-of-187, 40.6 percent)
Jets: 21st (85-of-220, 38.6 percent)
Bills: 25th (79-of-218, 36.2 percent)
Quick-hit thought: The Bills went 4-of-15 (26.7 percent) on third downs against Oakland, which was better than their 4-for-16 showing (25.0 percent) in a win over Green Bay. Go figure.
Bills: 1st (68-of-205, 33.2 percent)
Patriots: 16th (79-of-198, 39.9 percent)
Dolphins: 27th (92-of-209, 44.0 percent)
Jets: 31st (95-of-206, 46.1 percent)
Quick-hit thought: The Bills pop back into the top spot after spending last week with the second-best rate. Of course, Oakland's 51-yard conversion on third-and-22 all but erases any good feelings about this stat.
Patriots: tied-3rd (plus-11, 24 takeaways, 13 giveaways)
Bills: tied-6th (plus-8, 30 takeaways, 22 giveaways)
Dolphins: 13th (plus-2, 24 takeaways, 22 giveaways)
Jets: tied-30th (minus-11, 12 takeaways, 23 giveaways)
Quick-hit thought: The Bills take a slide down the chart after a minus-2 showing against the Raiders, one of only four games this season where they've had a negative turnover differential. Their worst outing (minus-3) was against New England, who will meet the Bills in the finale.
RED ZONE OFFENSE (based on TD percentage)
Patriots: 6th (39-of-63, 61.9 percent)
Dolphins: 19th (34-of-66, 51.5 percent)
Bills: 31st (20-of-49, 40.8 percent)
Jets: 32nd (16-of-42, 38.1 percent)
Quick-hit thought: The Bills did not make any red zone trips Sunday. It was probably for the better.
RED ZONE DEFENSE (based on TD percentage)
Patriots: 6th (20-of-44, 45.5 percent)
Bills: 18th (22-of-40, 55.0 percent)
Dolphins: 19th (28-of-50, 56.0 percent)
Jets: 24th (28-of-47, 59.6 percent)
Quick-hit thought: Oakland's NFL-leading red zone offense scored on two of its four trips, which was actually worse than their season average entering the game (75 percent). Still, when you allow backup fullback Jamize Olawale to score the touchdown to seal the win, that stings.
Mario Williams, DE, fourth Pro Bowl selection: His mammoth contract can be debated all day, but Williams' effect on the Bills this season was clear. He has 13.5 sacks, tied for fifth-most in the NFL. Williams had back-to-back multisack games in November, including a 3.5-sack outing against the Miami Dolphins, and remains one of the tougher players to block in the NFL.
Who he beat out: Williams gets the nod over fellow Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes, who has 9.5 sacks this season.
Kyle Williams, DT, fourth Pro Bowl selection: The defensive captain and team leader is among the toughest and most consistent players on the team. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick called him "borderline unblockable" last season and nothing has changed this season. Williams has 5.5 sacks, three passes defensed and one interception.
Who he beat out: Chicago Bears defensive tackle Stephen Paea was the second-leading vote-getter among fans but was not selected.
Marcell Dareus, DT, second Pro Bowl selection: One of the up-and-coming young defenders in the league, Dareus has gotten better and better over the past two seasons. He has 10 sacks this season, cracking double-digit sacks for the first time in his career. Dareus' status for the Pro Bowl could be in doubt after a knee injury in Sunday's loss to the Oakland Raiders.
Who he beat out: Another rising young star, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks (8.5 sacks), stood out this season but was not selected.