ORCHARD PARK, NY (AP) — If this is the end of the line for Jerry Hughes’ career, the Buffalo Bills defense is ready for the playoffs.
Whether it’s the rival New England Patriots for the third time in seven weeks or the prospect of playing in potentially freezing temperatures Saturday night, the 12th-year veteran is eager to face both.
“Spend some time outside, take off your pants, put on shorts and enjoy that weather, really embrace it,” said Hughes of preparing for what could be the coldest game in Bills history.
As for the patriots, there is more than enough bad blood among the divisional enemies to bolster him.
“It’s just going to be an old-fashioned drool-beater,” Hughes said, at a time when his future in Buffalo is uncertain as he completes the final year of his contract. He would like to return, but that is out of his control and out of his focus.
More importantly, Buffalo is getting a chance to make up for unfinished business a year after its deepest playoff run in 27 years ended with a loss to Kansas City in the AFC championship game.
“If this is my last chance to be Buffalo Bill, I want to be the best,” said Hughes.
Leave it to the only player left on Buffalo’s roster from the era of the late Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson, making his fourth playoff appearance in five years, to set the stage for a rubber game after the teams had split their season series.
Buffalo briefly relinquished first place in the AFC East after being embarrassed at home in a 14-10 loss to New England on December 6. Three weeks later, the Bills responded with a 33-21 win over New England as part of a four-game winning streak to capture their second consecutive division title.
Fittingly, the Patriots stand in the way, an opponent who essentially owned Buffalo by winning 35 out of 40 encounters from 2000 to 2019, but losing three of the past four.
“I felt like we would probably see them again,” said Bills Safety Jordan Poyer.
While Buffalo (11-6) has become the team to beat in the AFC East, the Patriots (10-7) have undergone a rapid transition after Tom Brady left two years ago.
After missing the playoffs last season for just the fourth time since the arrival of coach Bill Belichick in 2000, the revamped Patriots relied on versatile running offense and solid defense to pressure rookie quarterback Mac Jones.
It’s how the Patriots faltered by losing three out of four and being outdone in those defeats by a combined 93-62 that is cause for concern.
Don’t worry, said linebacker Matt Judon.
“All we wanted was a ticket to the dance,” Judon said. “We have. We are in the playoffs. And now we have to make it happen.”
It helps that the Patriots know they can win in Buffalo’s wintry conditions after Jones attempted just three passes and saw New England’s running charge go 222 yards in the face of 30 mph gusts.
“I don’t think we lack confidence,” Belichick said. “We do enough good things to be competitive. We just have to be more consistent.”
New England’s inability to stop Buffalo in third place in the second encounter was a big step toward the Bills’ victory. Buffalo went 6 of 12 and converted the third downs into three of his first four drives to build a 17-7 lead.
“When they get third, you’re literally on it all day,” Belichick said.
HOUSE MIX ADVANTAGE
After hosting two playoff games a year ago with approximately 7,000 fans in attendance due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Bills are looking forward to what should be nearly a full house for the first postseason since the Hall of Famer final. Jim Kelly game, a 30-27 loss to Jacksonville in a 1996 wildcard playoff.
“First of all, it’s a huge sense of pride to see a fan base supporting you in that,” centers Mitch Morse of fans showing up in the worst weather. “And then you also question the drunkenness level of some of those people.”
The Patriots may have a decision to make on the offensive line if starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn (hip, ankle) is unavailable.
Wynn allowed nine sacks in 16 games this season, but his greatest value was in the run game, where he was able to use his 6-foot-2, 310-pound frame to determine the lead.
The Patriots used it to their advantage in the first two games against Buffalo, combining for 371 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
If Wynn is unavailable, an option is to move the right tackle Trent Brown to the left and deploy Mike Onwenu on the right tackle.
FEET ON THE BACK
After losing his first three encounters with New England, Buffalo’s Josh Allen has won three out of four. His three wins over the Pats are more than any Bills QB since Doug Flutie held a 4-2 record during his three seasons at Buffalo from 1998-2000.
“Winners, in my opinion, are a team statistic,” Allen said. “Obviously we’ve had a pretty good team over the last few years and guys who are doing the right things, and that mostly has to do with wins.”
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