The New England Patriots entered Week 16 with a simple mindset in mind: their divisional showdown with the Buffalo Bills was essentially a playoff game. The players and coaches who described it as such certainly had a point considering that a win would lock up the division for the Patriots, and also keep the team well-positioned in terms of seeding in the AFC’s playoff race. Entering Week 17 now, this remains relevant.
New England will host the 4-11 Miami Dolphins on Sunday, and a victory would again be big for the reigning world champions: if the Patriots are able to beat their division rivals — or in the unlikely scenario the Kansas City Chiefs lose at home against the Los Angeles Chargers — they will end the regular season as the second seed in the conference and with a first-round bye. The team is in the driver’s seat, now it only needs to park the car accordingly.
“I’m 32 so obviously an off week sounds great,” defensive captain Devin McCourty said during his postgame press conference on Saturday about the prospects of earning a weekend off. “But I think the cool part is, this is two years in a row, the last two games of the regular season have really turned into playoff games for us. You win [against the Bills] and you win next week and you don’t have to play opening week of the playoffs.”
“Essentially, we win two games, we get the first week of the playoffs off, so essentially that’s a playoff win for us,” he added. “I think that guys understand that, we’ve developed that mentality for here on out, we need to have a mentality of win or go home. Every game we play in is a playoff game and if we don’t win, it kind of hurts us. I think we understand that, we put a lot into this game this week and now we’ve got to use the extra day to rest up. We’ve got to put a lot into next week against Miami.”
The Patriots are no strangers to earning a first-round bye. One of the most impressive features of their current dynastic run is that they have not appeared in a wildcard game in nine straight years, looking to make it 10 now. They are in a favorable spot, even though the circumstances have changed quite a bit since their last game against the Dolphins — in Week 2, New England defeated the team 43-0 on the road.
Nevertheless, the team is making sure that a late-season collapse will not spoil the first-round bye as cornerback Stephon Gilmore pointed out after his team’s 24-17 win against Buffalo: “It’s another playoff game. Win next week and we get a first round bye. We don’t need much more motivation than that.”