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Setting the scene: Patriots-Bills

01.01.12 at 9:59 am ET
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Vince Wilfork and the Patriots look to steamroll the Bills in the season finale and playoff tuneup. (Mike Petraglia, WEEI.com)

FOXBORO — You can leave those heavy winter coats and wool socks at home if you’re planning on attending the Patriots-Bills regular season finale today at Gillette Stadium.

Mother Nature apparently had a good New Year’s Eve and is in a giving mood, presenting the Patriots and Bills with sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-40s for today’s finale of the 2011 season on New Year’s Day 2012.

There will be some wind to contend with but it’s predicted to be no more than 10-15 MPH out of the south-southwest so wind chill shouldn’t be a factor.

The 12-3 Patriots will clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC and home field advantage throughout the playoffs for a second straight season with a win. If they lose to the Bills, they will have to sit, wait and hope the 11-4 Ravens and 11-4 Steelers both lose their 4:15 p.m. games to gain home field and the No. 1 seed.

The Ravens are on the road in Cincinnati and have motivation to win since they clinch the AFC North with a victory over the Bengals while the Steelers are also on the road, in Cleveland, battling the Browns with a banged up Ben Roethlisberger.

As for the Patriots, a win would put Bill Belichick in the rarest of air among NFL coaches all-time. He would become the first head coach in the Super Bowl era with five seasons of at least 13 wins.

In addition to the unbeaten 16-0 regular season of 2007, Belichick’s Patriots won 14 games in 2003, ’04 and ’10. He is already the first coach in NFL history with nine straight seasons of at least 10 wins, a streak that began in 2003.

Adding to Belichick’s resume is another remarkable stat, his Patriots teams haven’t been swept in a season series since 2000, his first year in New England, when the Patriots went 5-11. The Jets and Dolphins turned the trick in that season but the Bills have a chance to sweep the series with the Patriots for the first time since 1999.

The Bills, of course, had the chance in 2003, when they won the infamous “Lawyer Milloy” game, 31-0 in the season opener. The Patriots exacted revenge by the identical score in the season finale that year at Gillette. The Bills have lost all nine lifetime meetings at Gillette and haven’t won in New England since sweeping the season series in ’99.

The Patriots are 61-41-1 all-time against the Bills, with the 61 wins representing New England’s most ever against one team.

There has been plenty of talk this week about the left shoulder of Tom Brady, including the NFL Network’s Albert Breer reporting Friday night that Brady has sprained left shoulder, suffered in the first half of the Christmas Eve win over the Dolphins. Breer reported that sources told him that the injury was “not an instability” problem and Brady should be able to play with normal “pain control” management.

Brady was one of 17 Patriots listed as limited at practice on Friday but the only one of the 17 listed as “probable” for today’s season finale. The other 16 were all listed as questionable, including safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Brandon Spikes, both of whom were injured late in New England’s last loss – against the Giants on Nov. 6. Both Chung and Spikes have missed the last seven games.

There is the chance again today that both could return but they’ll be game-time decisions. The only two players ruled out for today are offensive linemen Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer. Mankins injured his left knee in the first quarter last week, reportedly spraining his MCL. Vollmer injured his right foot in the win over the Eagles on Nov. 27 and has missed all four games since.

Left tackle Matt Light – a late scratch last Saturday with a right ankle ailment – is again a game-time decision. If that’s the case, look for the Patriots to go with the combination of Nate Solder at left tackle, Donald Thomas at left guard, Dan Connolly/Ryan Wendell at center, Brian Waters at right guard and Marcus Cannon at right tackle.

On the defensive side of the ball, DB Malcolm Williams was signed off the practice squad on Saturday and is likely to be active for today’s game. DE Alex Silvestro, who made his NFL debut last Saturday against the Dolphins, was released this week but re-signed to practice squad on Saturday.

If indeed Brady starts and plays the majority of the game today, he will need just 103 passing yards to reach 5,000 for the first time in his heralded career. He’ll need just 85 more to pass Dan Marino‘s 1984 mark of 5,084, that was surpassed only last Monday night by Drew Brees of the Saints, who enters his season finale with 5,087.

Brady already has the fourth-highest single season passing mark in NFL history, with Brees owning first and third on the list. If he plays Brady is a near-certainty to move into No. 2 on the list, with Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers lurking with 4,643 yards.

Read More: Baltimore Ravens, Bill Belichick, Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals
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