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Patriots want this one badly

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Given the success of the New England Patriots in Bill Belichick's tenure as head coach, there haven't been too many season finales where the team was in a "got-to-have-it" scenario to make the playoffs.

So it's become the norm at this time of year, entering the final game, for players to get the same question from reporters: How much do you expect to play? The thinking is that with the Patriots ensured a playoff spot, perhaps some players will be held back to be at their healthiest come the postseason.

But when it was asked Friday, the message coming from the team's locker room was decisive. They all expect to play, including injured quarterback Tom Brady, and why wouldn't they?

"Absolutely," receiver Wes Welker said. "This is for the No. 1 seed, so we're going out there and giving everything we got for four quarters.

"That's the whole key, trying to get home-field advantage this weekend and being the No. 1 seed. That's definitely something on our minds, something we're playing for, and we understand that we have to come out there and play really well from start to finish."

Standing in the way is a 6-9 Buffalo Bills team that snapped a seven-game losing streak last weekend with a win over the Denver Broncos. Patriots players say they haven't forgotten what unfolded Sept. 25 in Buffalo when they lost 34-31, a result that they've been reminded of several times this week.

The Patriots haven't been swept in a season series since 2000, Belichick's first year as coach.

"Any time you come away from a team that has beat us the last time out, he's definitely going to let you know about it. I think we're already tired of hearing about it, and we only lost to them one time, [for the first time] in a long time," Welker said. "That's enough for us."

Players on offense say what they'll see from the Bills' defense Sunday is similar to what they faced earlier in the season, a zone scheme that plays a lot of Cover-1 (single-high safety). Personnel-wise, one of the few changes is that outside linebacker Shawne Merriman is on injured reserve.

There have been more personnel changes on offense, where lead running back Fred Jackson is also on IR, and there have been some moving parts along the offensive line. The Bills like to spread the field and throw, so the Patriots can expect to be in their sub defense a majority of the time with an extra defensive back.

"I think it starts with all the weapons they have," linebacker Jerod Mayo said of the Bills' offense. "It starts with the quarterback [Ryan Fitzpatrick]. If you give him time back there, he'll pick you apart. They have Stevie Johnson, he's a great wide receiver for them, and [running back] CJ Spiller, over the last four to five weeks, has been great; an explosive player."

When reflecting on where things went wrong in the early-season meeting against the Bills, Mayo cited the defense's inability to close it out.

"We were on top of those guys at the half [21-10] and we just have to finish," he said. "We have to put 60 minutes together. We've been talking about that all year, and have yet to put a 60-minute game together. That's the goal this week."

Offensively, Brady fired four interceptions in that game, two coming on tipped passes. The Patriots were without tight end Aaron Hernandez (MCL sprain) that day and ran a majority of their plays out of a three-receiver grouping, which means the Bills can expect a different look this time around with multiple-tight-end sets.

No NFL team has played more with multiple tight ends than the Patriots, which highlights how Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez have become integral parts of the offense.

"I don't think I've seen two guys that can go make plays the way they make plays, and all the different ways they can do it," Bills coach Chan Gailey said. "The combination that they have there, and how they use them, is very unique and one of the reasons they give teams so many problems. The matchups are very difficult."

In some ways, this game has a similar feeling to the 2003 season finale. That was the year the Patriots had lost to the Bills 31-0 in the opener, and then closed out that season with a 31-0 home victory over them.

Clearly, this is a case of two teams that have headed in different directions since they last met.

The mindset in some corners of the Patriots' locker room was that this game is one they'd like to get over with so they can focus on more important playoff matters. At the same time, they know they can't overlook the Bills because they have something important to play for, even though there has been little external attention placed on the game.

"We always talk about 'ignore the noise,' " Mayo said. "We're just focused on the Bills. Bill is always the same -- he's the same with [the media], he's the same with us. We're going out to win the game."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.