The New England Patriots have approached the final week of the regular season with a postseason-like focus.

No, really. A first-round bye in the AFC playoffs is on the line Sunday, so they insist they’re not taking their game against the lowly New York Jets lightly.

“It’s a one-game season,” running back James White said. “We’ve got to play our best football this week.”

The Patriots have not played during wild-card weekend since the 2009 season, when they were blown out 33-14 by Baltimore. They also failed to make it to the Super Bowl the other two times under Coach Bill Belichick (2005 and ’06) that they played during the opening weekend of playoffs.

So, New England wants a win to clinch the franchise’s 13th first-round bye in AFC playoffs since 2001, the most in the NFL during that span. The Patriots (10-5) would also earn a bye with losses by Baltimore, Houston and Tennessee on Sunday.

But they’d prefer to take care of business themselves against the Jets (4-11).


“I mean, for us, this is a playoff game, so we just worry about what we can control,” safety Patrick Chung said.

There’s also an outside shot New England could clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a win – which would be its 500th in the regular season – combined with losses by Kansas City and the Chargers.

Tom Brady and the Patriots are the only team in the NFL without a loss at home (7-0) and could complete an undefeated home regular season for the seventh time since 2002 with a sixth straight victory in the series with the Jets.

“Trust me, I wish I knew the answer to that,” safety Duron Harmon said when asked about the home/road disparity. “We’re working on it. But right now we’re just focusing on winning this Jets game.”

The Jets’ playoff hopes vanished months ago and this is expected to be Todd Bowles’ final game as coach.

New York failed to reach the postseason in any of Bowles’ four seasons and needs a victory to just match the team’s 5-11 records of the last two seasons.


Bowles’ bunch could have some extra motivation: spoil the Patriots’ plans.

“It would be awesome,” left tackle Kelvin Beachum said. “But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about pride and about finding a way to get a win.”

Part of the challenge for New England will come from Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, who is playing the best ball of his young career to cap his rookie season.

He was 24 of 35 for a career-high 341 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions last Sunday in New York’s overtime loss to Green Bay. In the three games since returning from a foot injury, Darnold is 64 of 97 (66 percent) for 764 yards and six TDs with just one INT.

“You just want your quarterback to be the most consistent player on the field,” Darnold said, “and that’s what I try to strive to be every single week.”

Unlike Brady, who is is coming off his worst performance of the season with his 48.3 passer rating in a 24-12 win last Sunday over Buffalo, his lowest since throwing four interceptions against Indianapolis in 2006.

He has 25 touchdown passes, his fewest since also tossing 25 during the 2013 season. But the 41-year-old Brady said earlier this week he fully intends to play beyond the end of his contract in 2019.

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