At risk of their first three-game losing streak in nearly a decade, the New England Patriots encounter an opponent that couldn't beat them for almost that long.
A win over the Buffalo Bills, though, is certainly no longer a given.
The Patriots look to put a stop to their frustrating skid Sunday in Orchard Park, N.Y., where they blew a 21-point lead last year as their long mastery of the Bills finally came to an end.
New England dominated its season opener at Tennessee, but it's now 1-2 for the first time since 2001. Another loss Sunday would give the Patriots three consecutive defeats for the first time since a four-game slide Sept. 29-Oct. 27, 2002, while matching the club's total from the entire 2011 regular season.
"It is a great opportunity for us," Bills coach Chan Gailey said. "They are going to be at an all-time focus level for this ball game just because of who they are."
Bill Belichick's team would be 3-0 if a pair of field-goal attempts had turned out differently. After Stephen Gostkowski badly missed a potential game-winner in a 20-18 home loss to Arizona two weeks ago, Baltimore's Justin Tucker made a 27-yarder at the gun to give the Ravens a 31-30 victory last Sunday.
Tucker's kick appeared to go over one of the uprights, and Belichick drew plenty of attention after the game for grabbing the arm of a replacement official trying to get an explanation about whether the play was under review.
"I'm trying to focus on coaching our football team," Belichick said. "We need to do a better job of controlling the things that we need to control."
Tom Brady also pointed to the Patriots' play after the team blew a nine-point lead in the final five minutes in Baltimore.
"We just don't play well when we need to," Brady said. "We've got to play our best when it means the most, and we need to start winning close games."
New England absolutely did not do that last year at Buffalo. The Patriots entered the Sept. 25 matchup riding a 15-game winning streak in the series, and they appeared well on their way to No. 16 after taking a 21-0 lead late in the first half.
But the Bills intercepted Brady four times - matching a career high for the two-time NFL MVP - and rallied to win 34-31 on Rian Lindell's 28-yard field goal as time expired.
Although the Patriots returned the favor at home in Week 17, erasing a 21-point deficit in a 49-21 victory, they're certainly not taking the Bills lightly, especially with Buffalo (2-1) tied atop the AFC East with New York.
After an ugly season-opening loss to the Jets, the Bills have bounced back to beat Kansas City and Cleveland. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for three touchdowns without an interception in last Sunday's 24-14 road win over the Browns.
Tashard Choice ran for 91 yards on 20 carries after C.J. Spiller went down early in the game with a shoulder injury. Spiller, who had been sensational since starter Fred Jackson suffered a sprained knee in the season opener, is questionable to play Sunday, but Jackson was cleared by a doctor and is expected to return ahead of schedule.
"You lose a guy like (Spiller), it definitely adds to wanting to get back out there and helping your team," said Jackson, who practiced for a third straight day Friday. "But from that standpoint, I always wanted to be back versus New England just because it is New England and it's a tough game for us."
Jackson was instrumental to the win over the Patriots last year, running for 74 yards and a touchdown on just 12 carries while adding five catches for 87 yards. He missed the road loss with an injury.
He may be eager to face a defense that looked vulnerable against the Ravens, allowing 503 yards - the fourth-highest total in the NFL this year.
"The offense played their tails off, and we just left them out to dry, and we can't do that," defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. "So we have to take it and move on. We have to get better from this. We definitely have to get better. We will get better."
New England at least answered concerns about Wes Welker's seemingly shrinking role, with Brady finding him eight times for 142 yards. But even career-high totals of 16 receptions and 217 yards from Welker weren't enough for the Patriots to win at Buffalo last season.
Western New York native Rob Gronkowski had two 100-yard games and four total touchdowns against the Bills in 2011. He's been held to 156 yards this year after having 1,327 last season to rank second in the AFC behind Welker (1,569).
Sunday will mark the first time since 2000 that the Bills will have a punter who isn't Brian Moorman. The former Pro Bowler was the team's longest-tenured player before he was released Tuesday after some early struggles.
Rookie Shawn Powell will take over as the Bills try to end a six-game skid against division opponents. Buffalo has lost 21 of 25 versus AFC East foes since the start of 2008.
It may help the Bills if New England is without star offensive lineman Logan Mankins, who hasn't been practicing due to a hip injury.
- New England
- Bill Belichick