The New England Patriots have approached the final week of the regular season with a postseason-like focus.
No, really. A first-round bye through the AFC playoffs is on the line Sunday, so they insist they’re not taking their game against the lowly New York Jets lightly.
“It’s a one-game season,” running back James White said. “We’ve got to play our best football this week.”
The Patriots have not played during wild-card weekend since the 2009 season, when they were blown out 33-14 by Baltimore. They also failed to make it to the Super Bowl the other two times under coach Bill Belichick (2005 and ’06) that they played during the opening weekend of playoffs.
So, New England wants a win, which would clinch the franchise’s 13th first-round bye in AFC playoffs since 2001, the most in the NFL during that span. The Patriots (10-5) would also earn a bye with losses by Baltimore, Houston and Tennessee on Sunday.
But they’d prefer to take care of business themselves against the Jets (4-11).
“I mean, for us, this is a playoff game, so we just worry about what we can control,” safety Patrick Chung said.
There’s also an outside shot New England could clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a win — which would be its 500th in the regular season — combined with losses by Kansas City and Los Angeles Chargers.
Speaking of Gillette Stadium, Tom Brady and the Patriots are the only team in the NFL without a loss at home (7-0). They could complete an undefeated home regular season for the seventh time since 2002 with a sixth straight victory in the series with the Jets.
“It’s always tough when we play these guys, home or away,” White said. “They’re going to come in ready to play no matter what their record is. We’ve just got to play our best football — which we haven’t done yet and which I’ve said a lot this year. I think we all know that we can play better in general and maybe that’s enough motivation for us to go out there and play our best.”
The Jets’ playoff hopes vanished months ago and this is expected to be Todd Bowles’ final game as coach. New York failed to reach the postseason in any of Bowles’ four seasons and needs a victory to just match the team’s 5-11 records of the last two seasons.
Bowles’ bunch could have some extra motivation: spoil the Patriots’ plans.
“It would be awesome,” left tackle Kelvin Beachum said. “But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about pride and about finding a way to get a win.”
Here are some other things to know when the Jets and Patriots face off in Foxborough:
Brady is coming off his worst performance of the season with his 48.3 passer rating in a 24-12 win over Buffalo his lowest since throwing four interceptions against Indianapolis in 2006.
He has 25 touchdown passes, his fewest since also tossing 25 during the 2013 season. But the 41-year-old Brady has no plans to step away from the game anytime soon. In his weekly radio spot with Westwood One Sports Radio on Monday, he said he fully intends to play beyond the end of his contract in 2019.
“I absolutely believe I will,” Brady said. “I know I’ve talked about it a long time. I have goals to play not only next year, but beyond that.”
All indications are that Bowles will be fired by the Jets sometime after the clock hits zero on the scoreboard Sunday.
Bowles has mostly declined to discuss his job status or his future, despite the speculation swirling for weeks, and his family has inevitably been exposed to.
“My private life will remain private,” Bowles said. “I don’t insulate them from anything. My kids go to school and they’re tough minded, they can take care of themselves and the Mrs. can take care of herself. We understand where we are and I’ve got no problems with my family.”
Jets quarterback Sam Darnold is playing the best ball of his young career to cap his rookie season.
He was 24 of 35 for a career-high 341 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions last Sunday in New York’s overtime loss to Green Bay. In the three games since returning from a foot injury, Darnold is 64 of 97 (66 percent) for 764 yards and six TDs with just one INT.
“You just want your quarterback to be the most consistent player on the field,” Darnold said, “and that’s what I try to strive to be every single week.”
Rookie Sony Michel and James White have been dynamic presences in Brady’s backfield.
Michel needs 119 yards rushing to become just the sixth Patriots running back to reach 1,000 under Belichick, and fourth rookie to do so — joining John Stephens (1988), Curtis Martin (1995) and Robert Edwards (1998).
White needs seven catches to become the 10th running back in NFL history with 90 or more in a season.
MANY HAPPY RETURNS
Jets return specialist Andre Roberts , selected last week for his first Pro Bowl, had a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Packers.
He’s the first player in franchise history — and 16th in the NFL since the merger — with TDs on a catch, kick return and punt return in the same season. He also joined Leon Johnson (1997) as the only players in team history to return a kick and a punt for a score in the same season.
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