The Buffalo Bills have a chance to finish 4-2 in the AFC East for the first time since 2007 with a win in New England on Sunday.
That, according to coach Doug Marrone, is not insignificant.
“Where do you want to start?” Marrone responded this week, when asked what his team had to play for in the season finale, given that the playoffs are out of reach for a 14th consecutive season. “We can start with being the only team in our division to have a winning record. That would be important for what we want to be able to build on.”
The Bills could also win three straight games for the first time since they did that to start the 2011 season, and a victory Sunday would be their first in Gillette Stadium since it opened in 2002.
“Really just trying to change things,” Marrone said. “We’re going to make these little changes - and we have been making them - but this is an important one. It’s our last time out, and we understand that. It’s the last time the 2013 Buffalo Bills football team is going to play together as a team. We’re in a league that is constantly changing.”
While the Bills’ roster will undoubtedly go through some shuffling after the season, it’s unlikely to be a complete facelift like last year (on the current 53-man roster, more than half of the players, 28, were not with the Bills in 2012).
“We’re going to have a lot of the same guys back, and that’s exciting,” center Eric Wood said. “I’m excited about where we can go. While it’s a long offseason, momentum can definitely carry over, and the confidence you can get from winning games will definitely carry over.”
The Bills have often pointed to the significance of their divisional games if they hope to end their playoff drought. Since 2000, Buffalo is 28-45 in AFC East games, including this year’s 3-2 record.
“It would be a step in the right direction. That’s something that we can hang our hats on this year,” running back Fred Jackson said. “We didn’t get where we wanted to be in the playoffs, but we got this thing turned around in the division and hopefully we can build from there.”
With a win, the Patriots can clinch a bye into the divisional round of the playoffs.
“We’ve been told the playoff scenarios and what is at stake for other teams and we know that the team we’re playing has a lot at stake,” Marrone said. “We feel that we have a lot at stake also. I’m excited about going up there with them.”
Marrone said the last game of the season has had added significance for him since he was in high school at Mount St. Michael Academy in the Bronx. His team had lost a championship game the week before, but had one game left to play in Marrone’s freshman year.
Assistant coach Frank Burke, a former fullback at Notre Dame, delivered an unforgettable pregame speech about the bond between teammates.
“I always think that you go through an offseason, you go through so many things together as a team,” Marrone said, “and because of change in our profession and change at the high-school level or wherever you want to play, it’s your last chance to go out there for each other.
“I think it’s a special bond, and that’s the way I look at the last game. Again, I may be different than most people, but that’s how it was instilled in me at a young age and that’s how I look at it. I look at it as being extremely important.”
Several Bills may also be playing their final game in the red, white and blue Buffalo uniform. Safety Jairus Byrd, tight end Scott Chandler, kicker Dan Carpenter and punter Brian Moorman are a few of the notable players who will become free agents after the year.
“It would be really, really good,” Byrd said of ending the season with a win. “I think that’s what we need to do, we need to finish the season strong and that’s a great step in the right direction.
“A lot of our games you look back and we would kick ourselves over some of the losses we’ve had. As long as we finish strong, it’s something to build off that we’re going to try to keep going and build the momentum in to next year.”
The Bills took Christmas off, but released a hypothetical injury report. Quarterback EJ Manuel was listed as limited with a knee injury, as was receiver Marquise Goodwin.
Backup quarterback Thad Lewis was a full participant, hypothetically, with a shoulder injury. Defensive tackle Kyle Williams (Achilles), safety Aaron Williams (ribs), running back Fred Jackson (ribs) and receiver Stevie Johnson (personal) were listed as non-participants.
Patriots safety Devin McCourty (concussion) and receiver Josh Boyce (ankle) were non-participants for New England.