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With everything clinched, business as usual for Patriots

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FOXBOROUGH — To play or not to play, that is the question. Or, put a different way, rust vs. rest?

With the New England Patriots (12-3) having locked up the No. 1 seed and a first-round playoff bye heading into the season finale against a Bills (8-7) team that’s already been eliminated from the postseason, there is literally nothing on the line for Sunday’s 1 p.m. matchup at Gillette Stadium.

That led to immediate and predictable questions as to how Bill Belichick might approach the finale in terms of playing time and lineups.

It also led to immediate annoyance from the New England head coach, maybe even more than he usually shows in his daily press conferences.

“I don’t think it really has a big effect on what we’ve been doing,” Belichick said of the No. 1 seed that was wrapped up with the Broncos’ loss to the Bengals on Monday Night Football. “(We’ll) just keep getting ready for Buffalo. That’s what our challenge is. What our position is, it is, but that will all take care of itself in due course. It doesn’t really have anything to do with right now.

“We’ll do the same thing we always do. It won’t be any different this week than it’s been any other week. It won’t be any different this year than it’s been any other year. We’ll do what we feel is best for our football team, period. Whatever’s best for our team then that’s what we’ll try to do.”

In the past, Belichick has generally played his healthy starters on both sides of the ball in such a situation as his team faces on Sunday. While the team might err on the side of caution with injured guys — like wide receiver Julian Edelman (concussion), guard Dan Connolly (knee), cornerback Kyle Arrington (hamstring) and running back LeGarrette Blount (shoulder), who missed last week’s game in New York — the rest of the roster should and will be ready to play.

Belichick not only made that clear to the media this week, he clearly did the same with his players.

“I’m preparing to my ability that I do every single week,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said. “I’m preparing to my max and expecting to play the whole game.”

In terms of the offense, that may be more than just toeing the company line. Quarterback Tom Brady and the attack have been a bit sluggish in recent weeks. The unit has struggled to get going early in games, has struggled with pass protection and, after topping 27 points in seven straight wins in the middle of the season, has been held to 23 points or fewer the last four weeks, including just 17 points in Sunday’s win over the Jets.

So not only is Brady expecting to play against Buffalo, he’s expecting his offense to use the action to try to improve against a Bills defense that leads the NFL in sacks among its many other defensive strengths.

“This is a big game for us in that it gives us an opportunity to try to improve certainly on last week’s performance and with the week off, you realize we’re going to have a little time to rest up. We just want to go out and play well and see if we can string together as many good plays as possible,” Brady said. “This defense will challenge you. They’ve got a good front, one of the best defenses in the league, one of the best defenses we’ve faced all year. They’re tops in the league in almost every category. We’ve played a lot of good defenses this year. This one doesn’t really take a back seat to anybody. We’ll have to, on a Christmas week, deal with a little bit of a different schedule like we are today and have enough mental toughness to go out there and try to be at our best.”

The Patriots have now clinched a playoff bye five straight years. So the players know what to expect when the week off comes and when the postseason hits. They also knew what to expect from their coach in regards to not overlooking the regular-season finale. It may seem meaningless to the rest of the world, but that’s not the attitude you’ll find in the Gillette Stadium locker room.

“It’s my fifth year. I knew not much was going to change when we came in here,” cornerback Devin McCourty said. “It’s always business as usual — focused on the next game. We’ve been in games where we’ve lost by a lot and the next week we had to focus on the next game. We’ve been in games where we’ve won by a lot and Bill has come in the same way. We’re on to whatever team is next and this week it’s Buffalo.

“The playoffs will come. When it’s here, it’ll be here in full effect. We understand that. I think this team understands what it is to be in the playoffs. Right now, we want to finish our season right.”

–This is the 109th regular-season meeting between the Patriots and Bills. The Patriots lead the series, 66-41-1. New England has dominated the series with the Bills as much as any team during the Bill Belichick era. The Patriots have lost just three times in 29 meetings dating back to the coach’s arrival in 2000. The Patriots had a 15-game winning streak against the Bills snapped with a 34-31 loss in 2011. With the 37-22 victory in Buffalo earlier this season, New England has now won 21 of the last 22 and 26 of 28.

–While the Patriots remain focused on the regular-season finale in Foxborough against the Bills on Sunday, the team was willing to admit that the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage it has already secured will give the team a boost in the postseason that will begin in a couple weeks.

“We love playing at home. I love playing at home. Our fans have been great,” Gronkowski said. “It’s definitely great and I’m excited for another home game. Can’t ask for anything better to be home and enjoy it and play in front of our fans.”

His quarterback also enjoys everything that comes with playing at Gillette Stadium, where New England has won 35 straight regular-season games against AFC opponents.

“We’ve always played pretty well at home. Certainly, we’ve got great fans who support us. We’ve got the weather elements, conditions — the wind always comes into play,” Brady said. “Because we practice in that, I always feel like that’s a great advantage for us, too. I think trying to get ahead of these teams and staying ahead and playing from ahead is really important to get the crowd into it. Our defense really feeds off of it.”


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