FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — For the New England Patriots, facing a team that lost its first eight games of the season shouldn’t be much of a challenge.
After all, New England has only lost twice all season.
But the Patriots’ praise of the Buffalo Bills is more than just the lip service they usually pay to opponents whose record is much worse than their own. That’s because the Bills are 4-2 in their past six games and would be 5-1 if Steve Johnson hadn’t dropped what would have been a winning touchdown pass in overtime against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“They’ve won four of the last six games,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday before practice for Sunday’s matchup in Buffalo. “There’re not a lot of teams that are doing better than that over the last six weeks in the National Football League. Not a lot.”
Only six have done better — New England, San Diego, Atlanta, Chicago, New Orleans and Philadelphia
New England (12-2) and Buffalo (4-10) met in the third game of the season when the Patriots were coming off a 28-14 loss to the New York Jets. The Patriots led the Bills just 24-23 going into the final two minutes of the third quarter before winning 38-30.
Ryan Fitzpatrick made his first start of the season in that game for the Bills and threw two touchdown passes and two interceptions.
“He looked pretty good in that game,” Belichick said, “but certainly with the extra playing time that he’s had throughout the season, he looks pretty solid back there.”
Fitzpatrick has started all 11 games since then and shown improvement with 21 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions in that stretch.
“Some of the games … they get ahead and he does a good job of managing the game and doing what he needs to do in the fourth quarter,” Belichick said, “not trying to score 60 points, just trying to win a game.”
Last Sunday, the Bills led the Miami Dolphins 17-7 after three quarters and won 17-14. The week before, they took a 10-6 lead into the second half and beat the Cleveland Browns 13-6.
The Bills’ resurgence actually began before their current six-game run. In the three games before that, they lost in overtime on the road to Baltimore and Kansas City and by three points to Chicago, three of the top teams in the NFL.
A win over the Patriots, tied for the NFL’s best record with Atlanta, would be a good consolation prize in the Bills’ 11th straight season without a playoff berth.
“This game also means everything to us,” Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington said. “We win this game, we win the division so this is what we’ve worked for all season long.”
A victory would clinch homefield advantage throughout the playoffs for the Patriots. A loss and a Jets win over the Bears would leave the AFC East title undecided until the final week of the regular season with New England still in jeopardy of finishing with only a wild-card spot.
“Like I say after every loss,” linebacker Jerod Mayo said, “as long as we learn something from it and it doesn’t repeat itself, it’s worth it.”
The Patriots have learned plenty from their last loss, 34-14 at Cleveland. Since then, they’ve won all six games while scoring an average of 37.8 points.
“Cleveland was a wakeup call for us,” nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. “They put it to us. We had a gut check. I don’t think there is one guy who left that game happy with anything he did that day. And I think we came together as a team and started putting more emphasis on little things.
“It’s not the big things. It’s all about the little things because the little things take care of the big things in the end. Ever since then I think we’ve just been focused in and one of our goals has been finishing” games.
They did it last Sunday night in a 31-27 win over Green Bay when Wilfork recovered quarterback Matt Flynn’s fumble on the Patriots 15-yard line on the final play, ending the Packers’ hopes.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to play well down the stretch even though we probably bent a little bit during the game,” Mayo said. “I think it might be mental toughness. We’ve been talking about that all year.”
The Bills have shown that, too, with nine of their games decided by eight points or fewer.
Still, Buffalo did lose its first eight games and has lost 14 straight against New England.
But a letdown could force the Patriots into a must-win situation a week later against Miami if they’re to get a first-round playoff bye. So they’re not likely to look past the Bills.
“Any team wants to control their own fate,” tight end Alge Crumpler said, “so getting this win would be great.”