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Jim McBride

In a late-season rarity in AFC East, there is a lot on the line when Bills play Patriots Saturday

A blocked punt and touchdown return by Matthew Slater (center) was a key in the Patriots’ win over the Bills Sept. 29.
A blocked punt and touchdown return by Matthew Slater (center) was a key in the Patriots’ win over the Bills Sept. 29.file/Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Welcome to the playoffs.

Well, not really, but it will feel like the postseason when the Patriots host the Bills Saturday in what has become very rare in the AFC East: a meaningful late-season game.

Both teams already have an invitation to the dance, though this game will help sort out the seedings and narrow the possibilities.

“Humongous,’’ declared safety Duron Harmon after New England snapped its two-game skid with a 34-13 win in Cincinnati. “It’s the biggest game of the year.’’

The Patriots (11-3) have the inside track on clinching their 11th straight division crown — and 16th in the past 17 seasons. New England gets the hats and T-shirts by beating either the Bills or the Dolphins at home Dec. 29.


For Buffalo (10-4) to take the division title for the first time since 1995, it would have to beat the Patriots and the Jets in Week 17, and also have New England lose to Miami.

If both clubs finish with 12-4 records, the Patriots get the nod because they would have an 11-2 record vs. common opponents, while the Bills would be 9-3.

The Patriots own the No. 2 seed in the AFC but likely will need to keep winning to maintain it — and the all-important bye week that comes with it — because the 10-4 Chiefs are on their heels. If New England slips once and Kansas City wins out, the Chiefs will slide into the second slot by virtue of their 28-22 win at Gillette in Week 14. The Patriots would play on wild-card weekend in that scenario.

The Patriots also could ascend to the No. 1 spot if they win out and the Ravens lose their final two games to the Browns and Steelers.

There aren’t a lot of secrets when it comes to Saturday’s matchup between these rivals, who met in Week 4 in Western New York when the Patriots won a battle of unbeatens, 16-10.


Josh Allen and the Bills have won four of their last five.
Josh Allen and the Bills have won four of their last five.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

The Bills will arrive in town with momentum after beating the Steelers in Pittsburgh Sunday night, but it was an earlier win that really caught Harmon’s eye.

“When they went to Dallas on Thanksgiving, they laid their will and did what they wanted to do,’’ he said. “I mean, [quarterback] Josh Allen’s playing really good football right now, taking care of the football. They’re running the ball [and] their defense has always been really good. Like I said, it’s going to be a tough game.’’

Julian Edelman said there wasn’t a lot of time to celebrate the win over the Bengals, especially with the Bills coming in on a condensed week.

“You have to turn it off and move on as soon as possible,’’ said Edelman, who has one less day to rest his sore knee. “This Bills team is very good and playing very well. It’s the perfect storm. They have a good coaching staff, a really good quarterback, and defense. It’s something we’ll have to have a good week of practice for.’’

The Patriots put up 291 total yards against the Bengals. The challenge will be stiffer against a formidable Buffalo defense, that coincidentally allows an average of 291 yards per game — third best in the NFL behind the Patriots (268) and 49ers (269).

“This is the best defense that we play and the challenge is incredible,’’ Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Monday. “We’ve gotten to see them once this year and now we have another opportunity to prepare and play an incredibly important game to our season this week. They’re well-coached at all three levels.’’


Jim McBride can be reached at james.mcbride@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.