Leading the AFC West by one game with two weeks left in the regular season, the Denver Broncos hope to avoid another collapse and finally return to the playoffs for the first time in six years.
That challenge might be a little easier with the reeling Buffalo Bills awaiting.
The Broncos look to bounce back from their first loss in more than a month when they try to hand the Bills an eighth straight defeat Saturday at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
For the third time in four years, Denver took an 8-5 record into the final three weeks. In 2008 and 2009, the Broncos dropped their final three games and failed to make the playoffs. Memories of those collapses might have resurfaced after Denver's six-game winning streak ended with a 41-23 home loss to New England on Sunday.
"We have to play a whole lot better if we want to win,'' cornerback Andre' Goodman said. "We haven't played our best football yet, but I think we feel good about the position we're in, in terms of the division race and right now that's the only thing we can focus on.''
At 8-6, Denver has a one-game division lead over Oakland and San Diego, and is two ahead of Kansas City. If the Broncos beat Buffalo (5-9) and the Chiefs at home on New Year's Day, they will reach the playoffs for the first time since the 2005 season.
Denver also could clinch the division this weekend with a win and a Raiders loss at Kansas City. The Broncos can clinch a playoff spot with a victory and losses by the New York Jets, Cincinnati and Tennessee on Saturday.
Though the Broncos control their own destiny, they must improve after blowing a 16-7 first-half lead by committing three turnovers and allowing the Patriots to score 34 points in the final 39 minutes.
"We need to concentrate on getting better," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "We showed (Sunday) that we're not ready to go to the playoffs and make a push."
Though Tim Tebow lost for the second time in nine starts, he threw for 194 yards and rushed for a team-high 93 and two touchdowns on 12 carries.
"We definitely have to be consistent,'' Tebow said. "It's something we have to improve on.''
Tebow, who has thrown 11 TDs with two interceptions and rushed for 610 yards and five scores, is 5-0 as a starter on the road. He's the only quarterback with at least five starts who is currently undefeated away from home in 2011.
Willis McGahee rushed just seven times for 70 yards against New England, leaving him 10 yards shy of reaching 1,000 for the first time since gaining 1,207 with Baltimore in 2007.
A first-round pick of the Bills in 2003, McGahee has rushed for 178 yards and two TDs on 30 attempts in two games against his former team.
The Broncos defense had not allowed more than 13 points in four of its previous five games prior to Sunday, but has a chance to rebound against a Buffalo team that's averaged 14.3 points during a seven-game skid.
Denver has won its last three trips to Buffalo, most recently 15-14 in 2007.
Once a playoff contender at 5-2, the Bills are in the midst of their longest skid since dropping their first eight games of 2010. Buffalo guaranteed a 12th straight season without a playoff appearance after falling 30-23 at Miami on Sunday.
Though injuries to key players like running back Fred Jackson have plagued the Bills, those who are healthy have been unable to keep the team afloat.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has taken most of the heat while going 1-7 with 10 touchdowns and 13 of his league-high 19 interceptions since signing a six-year, $59 million contract extension. Fitzpatrick threw for 316 yards with two touchdowns but was intercepted three times against the Dolphins.
Things could get worse for Fitzpatrick if receiver Stevie Johnson is unable to play due to a groin injury. Johnson leads the team with 68 receptions for 872 yards and six TDs.
Coach Chan Gailey, however, won't place all the blame on his struggling quarterback
"You lose this many games in a row, we all get criticism,'' Gailey said. "There's nobody that escapes criticism when you're doing what we're doing right now.''
Buffalo's defense remains ripe for criticism while giving up 32.0 points per game during the losing stretch. The Bills allowed a season-high 254 rushing yards against the Dolphins last weekend.
Buffalo snapped a five-game overall losing streak to the Broncos with a 30-23 win at Denver in their most recent meeting in 2008. The Bills have not beaten the Broncos at home since a 27-20 victory in 1994.
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