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Defense shows much improvement against long passes

Rookies Logan Ryan (above) and Duron Harmon (below) have acquitted themselves well in the secondary.

steven senne/associated press (left); jim rogash/getty images

Rookies Logan Ryan (left) and Duron Harmon have acquitted themselves well in the secondary.

One area where the Patriots have improved on defense this season is against deep passes. It was a major problem last season, with the Patriots giving up 74 pass plays of 20 yards or more. This year? Only 50, through 15 games.

“We’ve certainly put a lot of time and work into it,” coach Bill Belichick said. “It could definitely be better, but it hasn’t been anywhere close to the issue it was last year, thank God.”

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In the secondary, it has mostly been the same group of players from a year ago: cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, and Marquice Cole, and safeties Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory, and Tavon Wilson.

Two rookies — cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon — have seen significant playing time, and played well. Ryan has a team-high five interceptions and 1½ sacks, while Harmon has two picks.

“Obviously the players are doing a good job, but we’ve spent a lot of time on the deep part of the field because it’s so critical,” Belichick said. “Hopefully we can continue to play fairly well back there, because it’s just so important.

“When it all happens in one play, there’s nothing else you can do, there’s no chance of stopping them in the red area. It also takes a lot of other people out of the game, too. There’s nothing a nose guard can do about a go pattern, an inside linebacker, those plays are so far behind them, it kind of takes them out of the game.

“Our safeties have good range back there, our corners have played the ball pretty well. We haven’t had a lot of pass interference calls. I think overall our decision-making and playing the ball in the secondary has been obviously a lot better than it was last year.

“Not that that would take a lot, but it has been better.”

Focus is clear

Gregory was asked about the incentive for beating the Bills Sunday. A win brings a first-round bye. Coupled with a Denver loss, a win would also bring the No. 1 AFC playoff seed.

“People look at it all different ways,” said Gregory. “Some people say [a bye] breaks stride, and things like that, but for us, our main focus is going out this week and beating Buffalo. If we get a bye, we get a bye. If we don’t get a bye, we don’t get a bye.

“The only thing that we can control is going out and having a good week of practice, and then going out and beating a team that we know as a division opponent is always going to be a tough competitor.”

Gregory briefly left last Sunday’s win over Baltimore with a knee injury. It didn’t keep him off the field, or keep him from throwing on the “AFC East champion” hat after the game.

“We have some things we want to accomplish this year,” he said. “We had a big win this past weekend, and they’re just going to keep getting bigger from here on out, so this is a big game for us this weekend.

“Winning the AFC East is a great accomplishment — it’s something we set out to do this year and we were able to do it. Not to lighten that at all, it is a big thing for us, but we need to focus on Buffalo, focus on getting this win to keep us going.”

Phantom injuries

Neither the Patriots nor Bills practiced Wednesday because of the Christmas holiday, but both teams issued a practice participation report based on the assumption of what it would look like. McCourty was listed as “did not participate,” out with a concussion. Josh Boyce (ankle) also was a DNP. Running back Shane Vereen, who suffered a groin injury in Sunday’s win, was a new addition . . . The Patriots have 65 wins over the Bills, their most against any opponent. Sunday will mark the 108th meeting; the Patriots lead the series, 65-41-1.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@ globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.
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