(Eds: Updates with details, quotes and photo links. With AP Photos.)By HOWARD ULMANAP Sports Writer
The New England Patriots have one major goal remaining in the regular season: clinching home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. All they need to do is beat the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
That doesn’t seem so difficult for a team that has won its last seven games and will be at home against one that dropped seven straight before winning Saturday.
The Patriots (12-3) must keep avoiding turnovers and get decent play out of a makeshift offensive line should two starters remain sidelined. But the Bills (6-9) won 34-31 in the third game of the season, handing the Patriots one of their three losses. The Patriots gave the ball away four times in that game, all on Tom Brady’s interceptions leading to 24 points.
”I think everyone still has a pretty bitter taste in our mouths from the last time we lost to the Buffalo Bills,” Brady said Monday on WEEI radio. ”It was an incredibly difficult loss for our team. Everyone is going to be excited to go out there and see if we can do a better job.”
They’ve done much better at hanging on to the ball throughout their winning streak. In those seven games, the Patriots have 16 takeaways and just two giveaways. They lead the AFC with a plus-14 turnover differential.
In their first eight games, that differential was zero – 14 takeaways and 14 giveaways.
”In the beginning of the season, it just wasn’t very good,” offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien said Monday. ”It’s kind of ironic playing Buffalo this week and the challenges that they present. We turned the ball over four times against Buffalo in that game and we can’t do that. That’s just no way to win.”
Brady has thrown just one interception in the last seven games after having 10 in the first eight.
”Tom has done a much better job of taking care of the ball and he’s very, very conscious of it and it carries over to the rest of the offense,” O’Brien said. ”If we can just continue to do that, that’s one of the major stats that equals wins, just taking care of the ball. The way our defense has been playing opportunistic football, that’s going to help us going forward.”
With better protection, Brady has more time to stand in the backfield and allow his receivers to get open. That was a big problem early in Saturday’s 27-24 win over the Miami Dolphins in which the Patriots trailed 17-0 at halftime.
Left tackle Matt Light didn’t play after hurting his ankle in pregame warmups. Left guard Logan Mankins started but suffered a knee injury in the first quarter that ended his day. There was no word on whether either would face the Bills.
”I don’t really know much more than I knew on Saturday” about Mankins, coach Bill Belichick said. ”(Sunday) was Christmas, so today’s not a normal Monday. We’ll see where everybody is today and, more importantly, Wednesday when we hit the field again.”
Brady was sacked twice on New England’s first 10 offensive plays against Miami and was hurried often. But with offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia making adjustments, the protection was much better in the second half with rookie tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon, and free agent guard Donald Thomas filling in.
”We have a lot of depth up there because we bring in guys that are multiple position guys,” O’Brien said. ”They’re smart guys, they’re tough guys and then Dante gets them ready to play. When one guy goes down, it’s really the next-guy-up mentality.”
Scarnecchia has had plenty of experience with that. He’s in his 28th year as a Patriots assistant, the last 12 as offensive line coach and assistant head coach under Belichick. They also were New England assistants under Bill Parcells in 1996.
”Dante, as I’ve said many times before, is really just an outstanding coach at every level, whether it’s working with experienced players or developing young players or game planning against sophisticated schemes or teaching the most basic techniques to rookies, undrafted players, things like that,” Belichick said.
”He really is very thorough, well prepared, smart, communicates well with his players. … He’s done a great job all the years that I’ve been here.”
Scarnecchia has coached in 32 of the Patriots’ 36 playoff games. He, and the rest of the team, would like to play two at home this season. If they win those, they’ll reach the Super Bowl.
But Brady is focusing on beating the Bills. If the Patriots lose, they can earn the top seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs only if both Baltimore and Pittsburgh lose.
”It’s hard to not be aware of” possible playoff opponents, Brady said. ”We definitely don’t sit there in team meeting rooms and say, `These are all the scenarios that can play out.’ … We really are concerned with how we’re performing.”