The stakes for Saturday’s game in Foxborough, Mass., extend beyond the weekend for Buffalo Bills Coach Sean McDermott and the Patriots’ Bill Belichick. Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Buffalo Bills are coming for more than victory on Saturday.

They’re coming for the crown.

The AFC East title is the most clear and obvious consequence of Saturday’s game with the New England Patriots, the outcome of which could ripple far into the future. The Patriots (11-3) can claim the division outright by beating Buffalo, while the 10-win Bills must pull an upset and then bank on good fortune in Week 17. If the Patriots win, they will have won their division for the 11th year in a row, a streak that would match the longest ever in the history of the four major American professional sports.

Like its historical implications, Saturday’s stakes extend beyond the weekend.

A Buffalo win would offer the most damning evidence yet that the Patriots’ dynasty is in danger. Losses to the NFL’s elite – namely the Ravens and Chiefs – can be expected and should be excused. But never, in 15 meetings, have the Patriots lost to Buffalo at home with Tom Brady under center for four quarters.

Yet nowadays Brady is scuffling, rating statistically as the worst starting quarterback in the league since mid-November. Over that same stretch, the Bills have won four of five and have gained ground in the division. From a long-term standpoint, Buffalo is also closing the gap.


The Patriots know this. All season, they’ve seen it. This week, they’ve felt it.

“We know what we’re fighting for. They know what they’re fighting for. They’re trying to take it from us,” said Patriots wide receiver Phillip Dorsett. “We’ve got to go out there with that same mentality and do the same thing.”

Such knowledge has seeped down to the players, because in Wednesday team meetings, Bill Belichick introduces every opponent by breaking the franchise down to its historical and organizational roots. Last week, he noted how the Bengals have more homegrown talent than any team in the league. Dusting off their Bills notes this week, the Patriots could have mistaken them for a self-scouting report.

Buffalo’s brand of football feels familiar: smart, sound and defensive. The remade Bills are built to thrive in the modern NFL.

Like the Patriots, they’re a top-10 team by turnover differential. Their pass defense is similarly elite. Offensively, they’re a game-plan outfit that isn’t reliant on a single identity vulnerable to theft by clever coaching.

Each week, they present new problems for opponents.


“I think constantly whenever we play Buffalo – especially defensively – they always have a new wrinkle,” said Patriots linebacker Donta’ Hightower. “And I mean, the skill players that they have and the offensive line that they have, the way that they’re built, it’s built to be in this division. It’s built to play us.”

Last month, the Bills’ formula allowed them to dismantle Dallas on Thanksgiving, a game the Patriots watched closely and failed to execute themselves when the Cowboys visited a week earlier. Last weekend, the Bills clinched a playoff spot by pounding out Pittsburgh. On the season, they’ve won every game in which they’ve been favored except one.

Again, smart and sound.

Of course, second-year quarterback Josh Allen is a significant question mark. Allen may hold Buffalo back in the same way another young passer once stalled his own team during its ascent of Mt. Foxborough.

Earlier this decade, the Jets challenged the Patriots by twice advancing farther than them in the playoffs, even knocking out Brady and Belichick along the way in 2011. But eventually, Rex Ryan’s brash bunch was undone by its misevaluation of Mark Sanchez, crumbling culture and poor salary cap management.

Years later, disciplined investments in free agency have fortified Buffalo’s roster and bolstered its hopes. Allen’s top target, John Brown, who was unwanted in Arizona and Baltimore, has already set a career high with 1,007 receiving yards after signing in March. Allen’s new No. 2 receiver, Cole Beasley, owns a career-best six touchdowns. The ageless Frank Gore has formed a two-headed running attack with rookie Devin Singletary. The Patriots must be wary of the pair after surrendering 164 rushing yards to Cincinnati a week ago and 135 to the Bills in September.


As for the culture, Coach Sean McDermott is revered for his leadership and transformation of the organization. He’s helped the Bills harness their restlessness, common and elemental to every longstanding underdog, and apply it through a relentless playing style that wears on opponents. Special teams captain Matthew Slater, who’s observed the Bills as long as any active Patriots player except Brady, has noticed a silent sea change in Buffalo.

“I say that obviously being on the outside looking in, but it appears to me that there’s a lot of belief within their organization, a lot of belief in one another, a lot of trust, a lot of togetherness. And you certainly see that in how they play,” Slater said. “If one guy makes a play, you get five, six guys feeding off that, supporting each other. And you don’t see that in every team in this league. But you see that time and time again watching them.

“They’re finding ways to put together consistent football, mistake-free football, heady football and together football. And I think you can’t say enough good things about the way that they’ve played or where they’re headed as an organization.”

Slater acknowledged many of those same descriptors have applied to his own team over the years. Moments earlier, Hightower unknowingly described his Patriots defense, which owns a league-high 36 takeaways, by discussing Buffalo.

“That defense, if you leave the ball out there, they’re going to take advantage of it. And if you want to play hardball, they’re willing to line up with you and break your will in the front seven,” Hightower said. “They’re a real good, defensive team; a real good team all the way around.”

And then there’s special teams, annually an edge for the Patriots, who devote more of their roster to core coverage players than any team in the league.

This season, the Patriots have blocked four punts, including one that Slater scored against the Bills for what proved to be a game-winning touchdown.

But Buffalo is also ready to strike with its special teams. The Bills have threatened several opponents with near kick-return touchdowns by Andre Roberts, a late-blooming journeyman who was selected this week for the Pro Bowl.

“They’ve come really, really close,” Slater said. “Hopefully this is not the week they break one.”

Comments are not available on this story.