New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski catches a pass during practice this week at the team’s facility in Foxborough, Mass.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Buffalo Bills are plummeting toward their 13th straight season without a playoff berth. Four losses in their last five games are the wrong steps toward that elusive goal.
Now they must play the team that has dominated them for a decade in a stadium where they’ve never won.
Beat the New England Patriots? The Bills have done it just twice in their last 21 matchups.
“They’ve obviously had our number,” Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said. “We’re kind of down right now. We don’t think we’re out. I think there’s still a positive vibe in the locker room. I think you have to have that, otherwise you’re beat before you go play.”
It’s not that the Bills haven’t been competitive in Foxborough.
In 2009, they led 24-13 but lost 25-24 when Tom Brady threw two touchdown passes in the last three minutes. In 2010, they led 24-23 with two minutes left in the third quarter but lost 38-30. And last season, they led 21-0 after one quarter then collapsed and lost 49-21.
So the Patriots (5-3) don’t expect an easy game as they try to improve to 11-0 against the Bills (3-5) at Gillette Stadium. A victory takes on more urgency since they lead the Miami Dolphins by just one game in the AFC East.
“It’s always tough against a division opponent, no matter what the guys’ records are,” New England defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said.
The Patriots will be rested after having a bye last week. They went into it after their best game of the season, a 45-7 win in London in which they held St. Louis scoreless after allowing a touchdown on the Rams first possession.
In that game, Brady threw a season-high four touchdown passes without an interception or a sack, Stevan Ridley ran for 127 yards and Rob Gronkowski caught two touchdown passes for the second consecutive game.
In their first meeting with the Bills this year, the Patriots trailed 21-7 early in the third quarter then scored touchdowns on six straight possessions and pulled away for a 52-28 victory. It was just the second game in NFL history in which a team had a 300-yard pass rusher, two 100-yard receivers and two 100-yard rushers in the same game.
“They are very balanced now,” Buffalo linebacker Kelvin Sheppard said. “It is not just the Tom Brady show. It’s not just that they are going to line up five wide and throw the ball around. Now they do have the run dimension and they are averaging about 150 yards a game and that is definitely something that we are going to have to handle.”
That Bills were 2-1 going into that loss to the Patriots and followed it up with a 45-3 rout by the San Francisco 49ers in which they became the NFL’s first team to allow 300 yards passing and 300 yards rushing in the same game.
Buffalo’s only win in its last five games was in overtime, 19-16 over the slumping Arizona Cardinals.
Now it must try to stop the team that leads the NFL with 32.8 points and 440.8 yards per game with a defense that has allowed the second most points (31.0 per game) and yards (417.9).
“It’s (about) everybody knowing their job, playing fast and saying, `hey, you know what, they’re going to make a play, but it’s not letting one play turn into two, and not letting two turn into three,’ “ Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams said.
Even a strong start won’t mean much, not after Buffalo raced into the lead in two of the last three games between the teams before collapsing.
“I think everybody clicked” in the second half of the last meeting when the Patriots scored 45 points, Brady said. “We didn’t play very well in the first half so we were down 21-7 and it was a little bit of an adverse situation for us and we found a way to dig ourselves out of it. Hopefully, we don’t have to dig ourselves out of it this week.”
Since that strong start in the fourth game of the year, Fitzpatrick and his offense have been inconsistent.
Two weeks ago, the Bills blew a six-point lead in the last two minutes in a 35-34 loss to the Tennessee Titans. Last week, they rushed for a season-low 78 yards in a 21-9 loss to the Houston Texans. And their one-two running punch of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson gives them their best chance to move the ball against the Patriots.
In his last four games, Fitzpatrick has just three touchdown passes and hasn’t thrown for more than 239 yards against any opponent. He’s 4-13 in his last 17 games and is running out of time to prove he can succeed as a starter.
“Not only should Fitz feel like that,” wide receiver Stevie Johnson said, “I think we all should so we can have that sense of urgency.”
The Patriots feel urgency, too.
They remember last year’s game in Buffalo when they led 21-0 with two minutes left in the second quarter but lost 34-31.
“There have been some kind of wild swings and I think that shows the inconsistency that we’ve played (with) against them,” Brady said. “Hopefully, we can go out there and play consistently for 60 minutes.”
They needed just 30 the last time they beat the Bills.
“We’ve got to learn to finish against this football team,” Buffalo coach Chan Gailey said, “and it’s not easy. They’re good for a reason.”
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