This time, Patriots head into final week with playoff fate uncertain

Logan Mankins admits that he and many of his New England Patriots teammates are in unfamiliar territory.

They're accustomed to knowing their postseason fate by now. And they're accustomed to knowing that their postseason fate has them winning the AFC East and owning, at the least, a first-round bye and, at the most, home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

This season, the Patriots don't know any of that. They aren't even certain of making the playoffs.

"It is a lot different," said Mankins, a fourth-year offensive guard.

Just a year ago, the Patriots prepared for their regular-season finale against the New York Giants with only one concern -- whether they could become the first team in NFL history to finish their schedule 16-0, which they did.

On Sunday, they will face the Buffalo Bills with a chance to close the regular season at 11-5. That would give the Patriots one of the best records in the NFL, yet it wouldn't assure them of reaching the postseason for a sixth consecutive year.

To make it as division champions, the Patriots also need the Miami Dolphins to lose or tie against the New York Jets (a New England tie and a Miami loss would produce the same result). If the Dolphins don't cooperate, the Patriots still can make the playoffs as a wild-card entry if they beat the Bills and the Baltimore Ravens lose or tie against the Jacksonville Jaguars (a New England tie and a Baltimore loss would produce the same result).

Either way, the Patriots must win Sunday and receive some help. The NFL's schedule-makers have eliminated at least one distraction for Bill Belichick's team: No scoreboard watching at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Dolphins-Jets and Ravens-Jaguars games begin at 4:15 p.m. ET, well after the 1 p.m. New England-Buffalo kickoff.

If the Patriots win, they will rely on wireless handheld devices and other means to monitor those games after they leave the stadium for the airport. They'll also be able to watch the action on the televisions in their chartered flight back home.

"We know, at one o'clock, it's our turn to play, so we can take care of our business and then watch the other games on the little TVs we've got and see what's going on," Mankins said.

"I honestly think that everybody's completely focused on just Buffalo," Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel told reporters in New England. "We're not worried about other people's scores. If (the Dolphins and Ravens) had a one o'clock game, I don't think anybody would be looking up at the scoreboard or going, 'Gosh, I hope somebody wins' or, 'I hope this team loses.' It really comes down to us winning because that's the only way in which we're going to get to where we want to be, which is a spot in the playoffs."

The Patriots find themselves in the same boat as the Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles -- four other teams with no control of their postseason destiny. But the difference with New England is that it could have a better record than the other four teams and still be on the outside looking in.

"The thing is, we pretty much put ourselves in this situation by not winning the games that we should have won early in the year," Mankins said.

True enough.

Playoff picture

Randy Moss and the Patriots need a victory over the Bills, combined with a Dolphins or Ravens loss, on Sunday in order to make the playoffs. Check out all the postseason scenarios entering the final weekend.

However, a strong case can be made for the Patriots actually accomplishing more this year than in prior seasons -- including 2007 -- that ended in the Super Bowl. If New England fails to make the playoffs, it will be hard to put the blame on Tom Brady's season-ending knee injury early in the season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs. Cassel, who hadn't started since high school, has performed exceptionally well and earned himself an enormous pay raise (probably with another team) when his contract expires after the season.

The Patriots also have done an amazing job of overcoming season-ending injuries to running back Laurence Maroney and defensive stars Rodney Harrison and Adalius Thomas.

"We're not going to make excuses," Mankins said. "We feel that our backups can play with other teams' starters. We just kept fighting and people kept stepping up and making big plays and just kept winning games, and that's how we got to this position we are now.

"There were some rough periods in the beginning of the year on (the part of the offensive line) and Matt's part, but if you look at what's gone on lately, I think we're getting everything on the same page and we're a lot more consistent with each other."

New England's 47-7 victory over the Arizona Cardinals last week was further proof that the offense isn't skipping a beat without Brady.

The Patriots have a few other things going for them. They have won 10 in a row against the Bills, outscoring them 308-96 in that stretch. In their second meetings in the last five seasons, New England has won by an average score of 30-6.

Under Belichick, the Patriots are 6-2 in season finales, an indication of a mindset that he instilled in his players long ago.

"We're not just here trying to get a check," Mankins said. "We're trying to make the playoffs, giving ourselves an opportunity to get in that tournament and play in the Super Bowl and win that game."

But if the Patriots are going to make it to another Super Bowl, they won't be able to do it on their own.

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