Once again, the New England Patriots are AFC East champions. Once again, they've secured a bye in the playoffs. And, with a win over the Buffalo Bills Sunday, they'll get the top seed in the AFC playoffs for the fourth time in the Bill Belichick era.
A year of unquestioned success, right?
Actually, it's been the opposite.
The Patriots have been criticized as much as any No. 1 seed has before. They've been insulted for their bottom-ranked defense. The sky was falling after a two-game losing streak dropped them to 5-3.
Congratulate yourself if you stuck with New England as a playoff threat all the way throughout the season. You're in the minority, and you deserve the praise. Because Belichick's group has proved the critics wrong.
The Patriots remain a heavily-flawed team, sure, but with the No. 1 seed, they'll still be a team to be reckoned with in January.
To end the season on a successful note, they'll have to get an inkling of revenge against the team that handed them their first defeat. Don't sleep on the personal feelings behind this game; in 2003, the Patriots were rolling to the No. 1 seed, but the players admitted it was important for them to beat the same Bills team in the finale that beat them 31-0 in Week 1.
Those feelings could be alive on Sunday. Here are some keys for the Patriots as they try make good on them and set themselves up to stay home throughout the AFC playoffs.
The Bills have an opportunistic defense and a ball-hawking defense. The Patriots can go a long way toward winning this game if they don't just let Buffalo into it.
The Bills had been in a major slump until last week, dropping seven straight games, but a sloppy Denver team played right into Buffalo's hands and allowed it to get off the schneid.
The Patriots saw what the Bills can do in their first matchup in September. Buffalo picked off Tom Brady four times and ultimately needed every one of them in a last-second, 34-31 victory. Since then, Brady has recovered his trademark care of the football, and the Patriots have been far stingier and far less charitable.
Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buffalo receivers appeared early on to be built for shootouts, but injuries and ineffectiveness during the long losing streak took some luster out of the offense. If New England forces Buffalo to keep up all game, it'll be in business.
It's not the most original key to come up with, granted, but it's something that the Patriots haven't been doing a great job of in these closing weeks.
Logan Mankins is hurt. Matt Light missed last week's game. Andre Carter is done for the season. And now, Tom Brady has, apparently, a good deal of pain in his left shoulder. It's his non-throwing shoulder, but still, the last thing the Patriots need to do is risk any further injury to the man that gives them a fighting chance in these playoffs.
The Patriots already have the division and a bye wrapped up. The No. 1 seed is still at hand, but as it's been argued, that might not be crucial or even desired. There is nothing the Patriots can win in this game that would be worth an injury to a key player.
Commit to the running game
The Patriots have a good thing going in their backfield. They have a good mix of power and speed in BenJarvus Green-Ellis and draw specialist Danny Woodhead, and the emergence of rookie Stevan Ridley gives them a high-motor weapon to help grind teams down late in the game.
The only question concerning the New England running backs is whether or not Belichick and offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien commit to them.
The Patriots offense is at its most lethal when New England is running the ball consistently, rather than just relying on Brady to spread out his targets and gun the ball all over the field. It works in certain situations, like in the no-huddle offense and two-minute drill, but it's hard to base a successful game plan on that.
Furthermore, in the playoffs, the Patriots will need to run the football. Offenses that are too top-heavy in either direction get figured out by playoff-caliber defenses. Favoring the pass is still a winning strategy, but having the ability to turn to the ground game at times, especially in inclement weather, is important.
In their final tuneup before playoff time, the Patriots can take the opportunity to further develop a balanced attack that will be effective in the postseason.