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Patriots-Bills Preview

The New England Patriots looked vulnerable last weekend, while the Buffalo Bills continued to show drastic improvement.

If recent history is any indication, none of that will matter when the AFC East rivals meet Sunday in Orchard Park, N.Y.

With a 15th consecutive win over Buffalo, the Patriots would clinch their seventh division title in eight seasons and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

New England (12-2) has been dominant throughout much of its six-game winning streak, especially in victories over the New York Jets and Chicago by a combined 81-10 score to begin December.

A home game last Sunday night against Green Bay and backup quarterback Matt Flynn seemed like a mismatch, but the Packers used a 2-to-1 edge in time of possession to keep Tom Brady's offense off the field and nearly pull off the upset.

The Patriots needed a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Brady to Aaron Hernandez, then a late defensive stand to emerge with the 31-27 win.

"It certainly wasn't one of our better games," coach Bill Belichick said. "We've got to play a lot better than this or our season won't last much longer."

Another win over the Bills - or a Jets loss Sunday at Chicago - would ensure that the Patriots' season will end at Gillette Stadium or the Super Bowl, a position they're in primarily because of an offense that has helped New England average an NFL-high 31.9 points.

With help from defensive touchdowns the last two weeks, New England has scored more than 30 points without a turnover in six consecutive games, something that hadn't previously been done even four straight times in league history.

Brady has thrown 292 passes, including 21 touchdowns, since his last interception Oct. 17 against Baltimore. If he isn't picked off in his first 17 attempts Sunday, he'll break Bernie Kosar's NFL record of 308.

New England also got a special-teams boost against the Packers when Dan Connolly returned a kickoff 71 yards - a record for an offensive lineman - to the 4-yard line to set up another Brady-to-Hernandez TD.

The biggest issues remain on the Pats' rookie-laden defense, which allowed Green Bay to convert 11 of 19 third downs. The unit ranks 28th in the NFL, allowing 374.6 yards per game, but has forced 14 turnovers in the last five games, including Kyle Arrington's interception return for a TD and Vince Wilfork's game-ending fumble recovery last Sunday.

"Good teams find a way to win, especially in December," Wilfork said. "I'm not sad at a victory. I'm not worried about how we won. ... The fact of the matter is we won.

"Do I want to blow people out every game? Yeah," Wilfork added, "but it doesn't happen like that every time."

Soft defense was the reason the Patriots didn't blow out Buffalo (4-10) in Week 3, but Brady threw for 252 yards and three TDs in a 38-30 win.

It was the Bills' first game after first-year coach Chan Gailey tabbed Ryan Fitzpatrick the starting quarterback, and they finished with their highest point total against New England since a 31-0 win Sept. 7, 2003 - their last victory over the Pats.

Buffalo has been outscored 401-160 during its 14 straight losses in the series, the longest active streak between two NFL opponents.

Despite that bleak history, the Bills appear eager for the opportunity to measure up against an elite opponent. They're in the midst of a 4-2 stretch that followed an 0-8 start.

"It's a big game for us," Fitzpatrick said. "Putting (the streak) aside, it's how far have we come this year, how much have we improved? I think that's the biggest thing for us."

Buffalo's defense has keyed victories the last two weeks, allowing a combined 20 points against Cleveland and Miami.

The Bills' NFL-worst run defense stepped up last Sunday, holding the Dolphins to 65 rushing yards - 3.4 per carry - in a 17-14 road win.

"I've probably overused the word character, but I don't know if you can because that's what it's all about with this group," Gailey said. "I think we have got the wins to show for the improvement, rather than just seeing improvement in our eyes as coaches."

The Bills' breakout offensive star has been wide receiver Stevie Johnson, who is 57 yards shy of 1,000. After scoring at Miami, he needs one more receiving TD to match Bill Brooks' single-season franchise record of 11.

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