The NFL regular season will end on Sunday. And for the New England Patriots, it will end in Foxborough against the Buffalo Bills.
Not much will be on the line for either side when New England and Buffalo kick off Week 17 at 1 p.m. The 12-3 Patriots are guaranteed a first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage throughout, while the 8-7 Bills are eliminated from joining them in the postseason.
But there are some points of significance in the AFC East matchup, even if playoff implications are not one of them.
Here is a look at what to monitor in the 2014 finale.
Bills Look to Break Winless Streak at Gillette: New England edged by Buffalo, 37-22, at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Oct. 12, but Buffalo will look to get even at Gillette Stadium despite an 0-12 all-time record there since 2002. The 14-year streak is something head coach Doug Marrone is hoping to put an end to, after the five Bills head coaches before him could not do so. Working against those hopes is a Patriots franchise that has won 35 straight games at home against AFC opponents, marking the longest such streak since the merger in 1970.
Patriots Looking to Stay Intact: New England has gone 4-0 in Week 17 games since the 2010 season, with the last loss arriving against the Houston Texans to end the 2009 season. That game saw a non-contact injury during the first quarter end the season for then-Patriots receiver Wes Welker as well, and with less to gain on paper five seasons later, the first-seeded Patriots will be mindful of what’s to lose versus the Bills. The likes of running back LeGarrette Blount, wideout Julian Edelman, left guard Dan Connolly and cornerback Kyle Arrington all missed Week 16, and several others could follow suit along with them in Week 17.
Four Early Outs: The Patriots will head onto the field Sunday without running back Jonas Gray due to an ankle injury, and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard due to a hamstring injury that has since landed him on injured reserve. The Bills, meanwhile, will head onto the field without 10-sack Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcell Dareus due to a knee injury, as well as starting corner Stephon Gilmore due to a concussion. All four were officially announced as out in Friday’s injury report. How they will be replaced remains unofficial.
Cornerback Reset for Patriots: New England’s secondary could look a little different in Week 17. With Dennard out for the season, and with Arrington and Brandon Browner questionable to play, the personnel will monitored closely. Second-year cornerback Logan Ryan saw an extensive workload in the slot versus New York last Sunday, while undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler saw an extensive workload on special teams. And if Arrington and Browner are not part of the 46-man gameday roster, those two understudies could be called upon heavily again, making six-time Pro Bowler Darrelle Revis the wild card. The former New York Jet and Tampa Bay Buccaneer leads New England’s defense in snaps heading into the final game of 2014.
Bolden and White Waiting in Backfield: With Gray ruled out, and with Vereen and LeGarrette Blount listed as questionable, fellow Patriots running backs Brandon Bolden and James White could be in line to make up the difference against the Bills. Bolden rushed for 32 yards on five carries last weekend, and his lone 100-yard game came as an undrafted rookie versus Buffalo on Sept. 30, 2012. White, meanwhile, has rushed for 38 yards on nine carries after being selected in the fourth round last May, but the Wisconsin product has been inactive for 13 games as a rookie.
Boyce Makes Way Back to 53: Josh Boyce could see his first game action of the season on Sunday, as the 2013 fourth-round wideout was promoted to New England’s 53-man roster on Saturday. Boyce returned nine kicks and caught nine passes for 121 yards as a rookie last season, but the 5-foot-11, 205-pound Texas Christian product has spent the entirety of his second season on the practice squad.
New England’s Quarterback Plans: Tom Brady is expected to get the start behind center for the Patriots on Sunday, but the 37-year-old is also expected to be relieved by the 23-year-old Jimmy Garoppolo. The rookie second-round draft pick by way of Eastern Illinois has appeared in five games for New England this season, going 9-of-10 passing for 92 yards and a touchdown. Garoppolo has not, however, thrown a pass in a game since the team’s 51-23 rout over the Chicago Bears on Oct. 26. He figures to do so on Dec. 28, against a Bills defense that places third in the league with 210 passing yards allowed per game, third with 19 interceptions, and first with 50 sacks. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Garoppolo has kneeled down six times in his brief appearances, and he’s been sacked twice along the way. Yet he’ll hope he’ll only have to experience the former in what should be the most meaningful snaps of his young NFL career.
Orton Revisits Ninkovich: Bills quarterback Kyle Orton and Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich are no stranger to one another. In fact, the two Purdue Boilermakers were once part of a two-yard touchdown pass against Notre Dame in 2004. But 10 years have since passed. The Bills are 6-5 with Orton as the starter this year, and the Patriots defensive end has notched eight sacks in each of his last three years. If Ninkovich is in the game to reach his 1,000th defensive snap of the season, perhaps he will get to connect with the QB in another way on Sunday.
Spikes Returns to Foxborough: Brandon Spikes played in 51 regular-season games for the Patriots, and now, the 6-foot-2, 255-pound Bills linebacker will play in his second game against them. The 2010 second-round pick registered eight tackles the last time Buffalo faced New England in October, but this will be his first return to Gillette since departing via free agency last March. Spikes’ last game in a Patriots uniform arrived versus the Bills in Week 17 of 2013.