FOXBOROUGH — When the Patriots played their regular-season opener in Buffalo, it took a 35-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal with five seconds left for them to post a 23-21 win.
As it turned out, that was the first of many close games New England would have this season, and it began laying a foundation with players that they could excel in tight situations.
“It certainly was a forerunner for many other games that were similar to that,” coach Bill Belichick said in his Friday morning press conference. “I think it gave our team a lot of confidence, that game and then even the next week against the Jets [a 13-10 win], which was similar but different in that we were more on the defensive side of it, we had a couple of defensive stops.
“But they gave the team a lot of confidence that in the time that we spent on situational football, end-of-game type plays and situations and it produced some good results, I think that certainly stimulated a confidence and a belief in the things we were doing to prepare for those situations. I thought that was probably good.
“Obviously, when you look back at the end of the season, you see a game like that, you see how much that game means in the big picture. Had that one gone differently, things would be a lot different now.
“When you’re playing 16 games, each one of those has an impact, and that was a big game for us. They’re a good football team; they were then and they are now.”
The Bills are in Foxborough this weekend for the final game of the regular season, and this time both teams know what works and what doesn’t, and what to expect.
“Well, certainly we know a lot more now than we did then,” said Belichick. “Fifteen regular-season games, a lot of practices; we know a lot more. We have a much better idea of what the strengths and weaknesses of our teams are. We’ve seen those attacked by our opponents on a weekly basis.
“You’re at that time of year now where there’s not a whole lot new. They know what you have, you know what they have, and try to go out there and match it up, try to cover up things you think they’re going to try to attack, try to attack the ones that you think they’re weak at, vice-versa. Yeah, we know a lot more.”
With the regular-season finale at hand and the playoffs around the corner, Belichick said the season has gone by quickly, but “it goes by a lot faster when you’re winning than it does when you’re losing, I can tell you that from experience. When you’re 3-12 or whatever, you don’t get the feeling it’s going by real fast. But fortunately we haven’t had too many of those.”
Though New England has already clinched the AFC East, a win over the Bills would secure a first-round bye (the Patriots could still get one with a loss and some help). Cincinnati and Indianapolis, the other teams in contention for that bye, play at 1 p.m. against the Ravens and Jaguars, respectively, but Belichick said he won’t pay attention to their results before his own game.
“No, I’m not planning on it,” he said, “and I know when we walked out on the field for the Baltimore game last week I saw the score up on the board and that’s really the first time I saw that Buffalo beat Miami [which clinched the division for the Patriots].
“There’s nothing we can do about any of those games; whatever they are, they are. We just have to concentrate on what we’re doing and we need to do it for us. We’re not really worried about what anybody else is doing.”
However, his players are fully aware of what Sunday could mean.
“They know that if we win, we’re into the second round of the playoffs,” said Belichick. “And if we don’t win, we’re most likely playing in the first round of the playoffs. And that’s really all there is to know.
“Who, what, when — none of that yet. Who knows? You have to be a mathematician.
“We know what we can control: We win, we get into the second round of the playoffs. We know that, and right now that’s really all we care about.”