For many years, dating back even to the AFL, the chief rivals of the New England Patriots resided in their division: the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins.

But the Patriots’ recent dominance of the AFC East – eight consecutive division titles, with the chance to clinch a ninth Sunday – has created a tangible yawn when it comes to playing those teams. Life in the AFC East is frankly dull.

Which brings us to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have emerged as New England’s chief rival in the AFC.

While the teams feature some of the game’s biggest names – Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Devin McCourty for New England; Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell for Pittsburgh – their dislike for each other adds an emotional and often physical edge to the game.

They meet Sunday in Pittsburgh in the NFL’s latest Game of the Year, with the winner seizing a clear advantage in the race for the top seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

And the Patriots, coming off that 27-20 thumping they took in Miami on Monday night, had better win.

Sure, they can still clinch the AFC East (with a Buffalo loss or tie) or a playoff berth (with a Baltimore loss or tie) without winning Sunday, but a victory would provide a much clearer path – one that goes through Foxborough – to Minnesota and the Super Bowl for New England.

Pittsburgh could clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win over New England and a Jacksonville loss or tie. And while the Patriots don’t fear going to Pittsburgh – they’ve won two AFC championship games there after all (2001 and 2004) – they would be much more comfortable playing at Gillette Stadium in January.

The Patriots always have said they don’t care where they play, but it does matter in the postseason. In the Brady-Belichick era, the Patriots are 17-3 in home playoff games, 3-4 on the road.

Three of those four road losses came in the AFC championship game – one in Indianapolis, two in Denver. They are 5-1 at home in AFC championship games since Brady became the quarterback in 2001, the lone loss a 28-13 decision to the Baltimore Ravens in 2012.

Since then the Patriots haven’t lost a playoff game at home, winning six straight. They’ve gone 8-2 in the playoffs over that time, winning two Super Bowls.

The two losses? Both in Denver in AFC championship games.

So yes, the Patriots had better win Sunday.

And they had better play better than they did Monday night. Yes, they had built-in excuses: no Rob Gronkowski, no Trey Flowers, no Kyle Van Noy. But there were a bunch of other no-shows in that game as well.

Gronkowski, of course, was serving his one-game suspension for his late hit/cheap shot on Tre’Davious White of Buffalo the week before. Without him the Patriots went a stunning 0 of 11 on third down against the Dolphins, and Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin expects things to be different Sunday.

“Gronk is not only one of the most dynamic tight ends but just one of the most dynamic players in the NFL,” said Tomlin. “Obviously his absence is a significant one and his presence is a significant one.”

Brady has to throw better. Brandin Cooks has to catch a ball or two. The offensive line has to block a heck of a lot better. The front seven has to put a pass rush on. And the secondary has to make plays on the ball, something it didn’t do Monday.

The Patriots always seem to play their best when others doubt them. Early in the year, after Carolina stung them 33-30 at Gillette Stadium to drop New England to 2-2, there were questions about the defense, which was having a historically bad start. Well, New England won its next eight games in part because the defense didn’t allow more than 17 points in any of them.

Of course, a win Sunday doesn’t guarantee anything for the Patriots. While it would give them the head-to-head tiebreaker over Pittsburgh in the race for the No. 1 seed, they still would have to win their final two home games against Buffalo and the New York Jets to clinch. But those games are in Foxborough, which gives the Patriots a huge edge.

But a loss Sunday will be huge.

Not only would Pittsburgh clinch at least a bye, but the Patriots would be in danger of losing their first-round bye – and having to play a wild-card game – if the surprising Jacksonville Jaguars (9-4) win out against Houston (4-9), San Francisco (3-10) and Tennessee (8-5).

Also remember, if New England beats Pittsburgh, there are still a couple of scenarios where Jacksonville ends up as the top seed. The Jaguars won 30-9 at Pittsburgh in Week 5 when Ben Roethlisberger threw five interceptions.

And if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the years, it’s the importance of the bye week for the top two seeds. It gives teams a chance to heal physically and a chance to recharge mentally.

Since 2001 the Patriots have had a bye week in every season they’ve advanced to the Super Bowl. In the two seasons the Patriots played in a wild-card game, they haven’t advanced past the divisional round.

There’s a lot at stake here. It’s time for the Patriots to play like the preseason Super Bowl pick everyone thought they would be.