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Bagging Buffalo is a key in hunt for division title

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / September 23, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — Must-win situations don’t exist in the first few weeks of the season, but the Patriots had the Jets in something resembling one last week.

This week, New England must react the same way its archrival did in a similar situation.

Maybe Phil Simms and Jim Nantz won’t be there. Maybe television rating records won’t be broken. Maybe the Patriots haven’t lost to this week’s opponent since Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski were in their first month of high school.

But that doesn’t change the fact that on Sunday at 1 p.m., we’ll find out something about the makeup of the 2010 Patriots. This game against the Bills is an opportunity for the team to assert its will on a lesser opponent, show its resiliency, and, most important, win a division game it has to have, as much as any team can at this time of year.

“Another big division game for us here this week,’’ said coach Bill Belichick. “Big division game. We always have a tough game with them. It’s always a physical game. We had a really hard time last year moving the ball, throwing the ball against them, so I hope we can have a little more production.’’

Belichick isn’t being completely truthful. It isn’t always tough with Buffalo.

The Patriots have a 13-game winning streak against the Bills, with six of those first nine games won by at least three touchdowns. The next two, even with Matt Cassel as quarterback, were multiple-possession victories.

But the last two were, indeed, too close for comfort. Were it not for a fumbled kickoff by Leodis McKelvin, and two touchdowns in the final 2:06, the Patriots would have lost last year’s season opener to Buffalo.

And three months later, New England needed a third and 6 converted at the edge of the two-minute warning to put away a 17-10 win over the Bills.

Now, take that, and realize how important beating Buffalo has been to the Patriots over the last four years — seriously — and you’ll see why this week’s game is a very, very big one.

Since 2006, the Patriots are 10-7 against the Dolphins and Jets, with the only sweeps against either team coming during the unbeaten regular season of 2007. New England split with Miami and New York in 2006, ’08, and ’09.

What separates the Patriots in the division in that period, more than anything else, has been their ability to take care of business against the Bills.

The Patriots have won all eight of their games over Buffalo in that span, while Miami has gone 4-5 (including its Week 1 win this season) and the Jets have been 4-4.

In what should be a tight AFC East race, it’s not unreasonable to think the Jets, Patriots, and Dolphins play to a draw, splitting with one another. How they do against Buffalo would come into play with the next tiebreaker to crown a champion: division record.

And because it’s that big a game, it’ll provide the Patriots with their first test of will this season. Looking at the quality of opponent, it might seem this is the kind of team the Patriots want to see, considering the demoralizing loss the Bills suffered last Sunday.

But this time around, it could reveal their maturity, or lack thereof, both in maintaining focus with a mediocre opponent ahead and correcting mistakes from the previous week.

“I just really felt like we didn’t perform the way that we’re expected to perform,’’ said quarterback Tom Brady. “I think all the players really felt that way. I don’t think that was just my thinking. I think we all collectively felt that, and I think we just expect to go out there and play significantly better. Hopefully we’ve learned from some of the mistakes.’’

The hallmark of the great Patriots teams of the past was an ability to respond to adversity, which is why some of the issues that cropped up last year were hard to comprehend for a club quarterbacked by Brady and coached by Belichick.

After Thanksgiving, New England suffered consecutive losses for just the first time in three years and second time in seven seasons, then did it again to finish the season. They also lost three out of four for the first time since the first half of the 2002 season.

So if the Patriots really are on the right track, we should see it this week, and in a big way.

If the Patriots win this week, they regain a modicum of control.

Conversely, a loss wouldn’t end the season. But it would put the Patriots in a pretty serious hole, and maybe even make next week’s Miami game a real “must-win.’’

Buffalo might not be the most exciting opponent for those on the outside. But it needs to be for those on the inside.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer.

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