The phrase “must win” is tossed around far too loosely in sports.
The phrase, however, applies to the Patriots-Bills clash Sunday at Gillette Stadium, with the AFC East title hanging in the balance.
A win by the Patriots (9-5) would all but assure New England of its 17th division title in the past 20 seasons. A win by the Bills (8-6) would draw them into a tie with the Patriots at 9-6 with two regular-season games remaining and the teams having split the season series.
It’s a fascinating matchup. The Buffalo defense is ranked No. 3 in points allowed and No. 1 in fewest yards allowed. The Patriots are No. 1 in fewest points and No. 2 in fewest yards.
The Bills are trying to defend their division title while the Patriots are trying to reassert themselves after dominating the division for the past two decades. Buffalo has struggled of late, however, losing three of its past five games entering Sunday.
New England had its seven-game winning streak halted abruptly last week in a loss to the Colts — who physically manhandled the Patriots, leaving head coach Bill Belichick seething afterward.
Belichick was so short with reporters after the loss to Indianapolis that he opened his Monday press conference by apologizing to the media.
Asked if the loss to the Colts might have helped his team’s focus for this week and the final stretch of the regular season, Belichick said, “I don’t know. We’ll see. We’ll see what happens this week. We usually don’t focus too much on what happened the week before, good or bad.
“After we get through it and correct it, talk about it, focus on the game that’s coming up and try to prepare the best we can for it. I don’t think living in the past and worrying about last week’s game all week and all the psychological effects and bunch of other garbage, I don’t think that has anything to do with the Buffalo game.
“Either we’re going to prepare well, perform well, execute well in the game, and make good decisions, coaches, players, and all that, or we’re not. I don’t really know what last week, two weeks ago, or some game in 2006 had to do with it.’’
One Patriots player who would like to move on from the loss to the Colts quickly is rookie quarterback Mac Jones, who played his worst game of the season, with two interceptions.
“Every experience is a learning experience,’’ Jones said during the week. “Whether you win or you lose, you can still learn. In college, you lose games and you have to learn from it. In the NFL, obviously, it’s hard to win, so you have to learn from the errors you make personally, which are the most important because that’s how it affects the team.
“I’m always very hard on myself because if I don’t play great, then it affects the people around me. Those guys are playing really well and I can play a lot better. It just goes back to me. I think you just have to keep moving forward and understand what we’re about to face in a really good football team.’’
The Patriots defeated the Bills on Dec. 6 at Buffalo in a bizarre 14-10 decision in which Jones threw just three passes the entire night because of cold, windy weather.
New England’s running game took a hit when Rhamondre Stevenson went on the COVID/reserve list Friday, but the Patriots might have Damien Harris back on the field after he was forced to sit out the Colts game with a hamstring injury. Harris was listed as questionable.
The Patriots enter the game coming off a miserable defensive performance against the Colts’ rushing attack, which gashed them — thanks to Jonathan Taylor running for 170 yards. The Patriots rank 24th in the league in run defense, but the Bills are not a big running team.
The Buffalo offense revolves around quarterback Josh Allen — in both the pass and run game. Allen has thrown 31 touchdown passes and run for another four. He’s the second leading rusher on the team, with 555 yards.
“He’s really hard to stop,’’ Belichick said. “He does a good job at everything. He’s continued to grow as a player and I think you see his leadership, his toughness, his physical ability, all that, on a very consistent basis. He’s the guy that makes them go and he’s become one of the top quarterbacks in the league.’’