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Patriots Notebook

Top priority is home field, but Bills loss lingers

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / December 27, 2011
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With one victory separating the Patriots from the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, they’ve already been given enough motivation to beat Buffalo Sunday in the regular-season finale at Gillette Stadium.

But they also have a little more, courtesy of the Bills, who handed the Patriots one of their three losses, a 34-31 setback in Week 3 after New England had built a 21-0 second-quarter lead.

“I think everyone still has a pretty bitter taste in our mouths from the last time we lost to the Buffalo Bills,’’ Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said yesterday during his contractually obligated weekly appearance on WEEI. “It was an incredibly difficult loss for our team. I think everyone is going to be excited to go out there and see if we can do a better job this week.’’

Brady played a hand in the loss, throwing a season-high four interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter that gave the Bills the lead.

It marked the first time since the 2003 season opener the Patriots had lost to the Bills, snapping a streak of 15 consecutive wins in the series. Getting another win would clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs; Saturday’s win over the Dolphins guaranteed the Patriots no worse than a No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.

“Whoever we play in the playoffs is going to be a good team,’’ Brady said. “It doesn’t matter who it is, we’re going to need to play our best game of the year. So everything that we’re doing in preparation is so that we can continue to build, so whenever you do face a playoff opponent, you’re going to be ready to play at your best.

“I don’t think we ever sit here and say, ‘These are the teams we want to play.’ That’ll play itself out over the next few weeks.’’

A big plus

One area the Patriots have improved is protecting the football. They turned it over 14 times through the first eight games, when they went 5-3. During the current seven-game winning streak, there have been just two turnovers: a lost fumble against the Chiefs, and a Brady interception at Washington.

“It’s kind of ironic playing Buffalo this week and the challenges that they present,’’ offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien said. “We turned the ball over four times against Buffalo in that game and we can’t do that. That’s no way to win.

“I think it starts with the quarterback. Tom has done a much better job of taking care of the ball and he’s very, very conscious of it, and it carries over to the rest of the offense. If we can continue to do that, that’s one of the major stats that equals wins, just taking care of the ball.’’

With two more takeaways Saturday, the Patriots have forced 30 turnovers, and committed 16. Their plus-14 ratio is third in the league, and leads the AFC, with Houston (plus-7) second.

Togetherness

When the locker room doors were opened to the media after Saturday’s game, owner Robert Kraft was spotted holding a football, and photographs were being taken with his family members holding a painting. The painting was a gift from the Patriots players to honor Kraft’s late wife, Myra. Coach Bill Belichick also presented a game ball to Kraft following the victory.

In the painting -pictures have been posted to the team’s Twitter account - a group of Patriots are in a huddle, with their hands joined and pointing up to the initials MHK, for Myra Kraft, who died July 20. The team has dedicated the season to her, and Matt Light - who missed the game with a right ankle injury - gave the painting to Kraft.

Scored with gifts

Brady was able to bring the footballs he scored with - two 1-yard sneaks - to sons John and Ben as a bonus Christmas present. Considered a lost art by some, or a risky collision by others, Brady said he views the quarterback sneak as a calculated offensive decision to what the defense is doing, its physical toll notwithstanding.

“It depends on the situation,’’ Brady said. “There’s some times where you know you’re going to take a pretty good lick, and you’ve got to go for it anyway. It’s a tough play to stop for a defense because they’ve got to defend all the gaps. They don’t know if you’re going to sneak it or they don’t know if you’re going to hand it off, so it’s hard to bring everybody in to the middle part of the defense when you can hand the ball off to your running back and he can just run outside.

“Wherever they’re not defending, we try to go. If they’re going to give us sneaks, we’ll take them.’’

No Mankins update

Belichick had no update on left guard Logan Mankins, who left Saturday’s game in the first quarter with an unspecified left knee injury and didn’t return.

“I don’t really know much more than I knew on Saturday,’’ Belichick said. “Yesterday was Christmas, so . . . we’ll see where everybody is today, and [tomorrow] when we take the field again.’’

It’ll also be worth noting this week if Light can return, and if safety Patrick Chung (foot injury, seven straight missed games) and linebacker Brandon Spikes (knee injury, six straight inactives) will be healthy enough to contribute.

Bear of a comeback

Saturday’s comeback was the largest since the Patriots overcame a 21-point third-quarter deficit (27-6) at Chicago Nov. 10, 2002. New England won that game, 33-30 . . . The Dolphins probably didn’t like it, but the 30-degree temperature at kickoff suited the Patriots just fine. New England is 31-7 since 1993 when the kickoff temperature is 34 degrees or colder. It’s early, but the forecasted high for Sunday’s regular-season finale against Buffalo is 36 . . . The Patriots released defensive back Ross Ventrone and defensive lineman Cedric McKinley, who was on the practice squad . . . The Bills lost three more players to injury Saturday. Starting offensive linemen Demetrius Bell (knee/ankle) and Kraig Urbik (knee) and reserve tight end Mike Caussin (knee) yesterday were ruled out for Sunday’s game.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.

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