FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – For the third straight year, the New England Patriots can clinch the AFC East title in their 13th game. This season’s road to the playoffs has been the rockiest.

Despite injuries and inconsistency, the Patriots can lock up the division on Sunday with an 8-5 record if they beat Buffalo and Miami loses at San Diego.

In 2003, they were 11-2 after 13 games, and last season, they had a 12-1 record. They ended both seasons at 14-2. They’ve been battered this season, but still can claim the division title with three games left.

“That’s a great thing, despite all the things that we’ve been through,” fullback Patrick Pass said Wednesday.

In the third game they lost star safety Rodney Harrison for the season, and tackle Matt Light, who may not return from a broken leg. Six defensive backs are on injured reserve and so is center Dan Koppen. At running back, Kevin Faulk missed eight games and Corey Dillon sat out two before returning last Sunday.

And the Patriots have lost four games by 10 points or more.

Indianapolis (12-0) has clinched the AFC South and Cincinnati (9-3) can secure the AFC North if it beats Cleveland and Pittsburgh loses to Chicago. Denver (9-3) leads the AFC West by one game over San Diego and Kansas City.

The Patriots are in the AFC’s worst division, with Miami in second place at 5-7.

“We’ve got good teams and good players on these teams,” kicker Adam Vinatieri said. “It’s just (that) there’s a lot of good teams elsewhere, too.

“In the past, we’ve had statistically one of the strongest divisions, so everything’s different every year. It’s just a situation where the (New York) Jets, Miami, Buffalo, whenever we play any of these teams it seems like it’s always a tough game, especially this week. Going up to Buffalo, it’s going to be real tough.”

The Bills are 4-8, but 4-2 at home. They nearly beat the Patriots in Foxborough on Oct. 30 when they led 16-7, but allowed two touchdowns in the last 71/2 minutes and lost 21-16. The winning touchdown followed Rosevelt’s Colvin’s sack and fumble recovery against Kelly Holcomb.

Colvin had an impressive sack against Brooks Bollinger in last Sunday’s 16-3 win over the Jets that put the Patriots in position to clinch a playoff berth at Buffalo.

“We know what’s on the line,” Colvin said. “It’s a divisional opponent. It’s an opportunity to put another team behind us and it gives us another opportunity to put ourselves where we want to be at the end of the season.”

The Patriots won the Super Bowl after each of their last three division titles.

In 2001, they clinched the AFC East with a 38-6 win at Carolina in the last game of the season and finished 11-5. They beat St. Louis in the Super Bowl 20-17.

After missing the playoffs in 2002, they finished 14-2 in 2003 and defeated Carolina 32-29 for their second championship. They had the same record last year and beat Philadelphia 24-21 in the Super Bowl.

They’ve played far less consistently this season, but have won three of their last four games and are getting much healthier.

“There are some guys back that were not healthy when we played them” in Foxborough, Buffalo coach Mike Mularkey said. “It looks like their level of play is increasing as the season is closing and building to the postseason.”

The Bills aren’t pushovers.

Last Sunday they led at Miami 23-3, but lost 24-23 on a touchdown with 6 seconds left. They also beat Kansas City 14-3 on Nov. 13 two weeks before the Chiefs pounded New England 26-16.

So the Patriots don’t want to focus on how close they are to the division title.

“We try not to look at it, but I think that you kind of hear that just walking around the locker room and hearing the questions” from reporters, linebacker Mike Vrabel said. “Our strength has always been just to stay focused and stay within the task at hand and it would be great if we could do that, if we could go to Buffalo and get a win, but it’s not going to be easy.”

AP-ES-12-07-05 1908EST


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