FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots have suddenly gone from top dog to underdog. They have a 3% chance to win the AFC East, according to ESPN's Football Power Index, which are long odds for a franchise that has grown accustomed to winning division crowns over the past two decades.
The Patriots have won 11 straight AFC East titles and 17 of the past 19.
"We're in a tough spot right now. We dug ourselves a hole, but that doesn't mean we can't dig ourselves out," running back Damien Harris said. "It doesn't mean that our season is over."
How rare is this spot for the Patriots?
Consider that since the start of the 2003 season there had been 284 losing streaks of at least four games (including streaks spanning seasons) entering Sunday, and New England was the only team without a single one. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, now led by former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, had the most with 18. The Seattle Seahawks had the next fewest with two.
Brady was the king of the fourth-quarter comeback, but as Patriots coach Bill Belichick noted after Sunday's 24-21 loss to Buffalo, the Patriots have lost three times this season when they were within one score in the final quarter.
They had their final drive in a 35-30 loss to the Seahawks end at Seattle's 2-yard line on Sept. 20. In an Oct. 18 loss to Denver, they marched to the Broncos' 24 before stalling out. And on Sunday, they made it all the way to the Bills' 14-yard line before quarterback Cam Newton fumbled the ball away.
"You just have to be better at situational football," said Newton, who has gone three consecutive games without a passing touchdown, the second-longest such streak of his 10-year career and the longest within a single season. "Practice it each and every day. It's up to the players, including myself, to execute it better. That's what it comes down to."
Though the Patriots aren't finishing games when the opportunity presents itself, they aren't starting them fast enough. They remain the only team in the NFL that hasn't scored an offensive touchdown in the opening quarter of a game this season.
Equally troubling is how the defense is playing, at times, particularly against the run. For the second straight week, the tackling was shoddy (the Bills totaled 190 yards rushing). While part of that is tied to playing with fewer defenders in the box -- the Patriots were essentially daring the Bills to run to negate the explosive playmaking of wide receivers Stefon Diggs, John Brown and Cole Beasley -- New England's overall fundamentals have faltered too often.
It also doesn't help that its best defensive tackle, Lawrence Guy, left Sunday's contest in the third quarter with a shoulder injury. The Patriots have been thin at that spot all season, and controlling the line of scrimmage -- already a challenge with Guy in the lineup -- will become that much harder if he is to miss any time.
"They ran way more than they have all year. We knew that was a chance coming in, especially the way the game started. When we came out, it started to hail, the rain was coming down, strong winds. We knew there was a chance it could turn into a heavier run game," Patriots safety Devin McCourty said.
"We didn't do well against the run last week [the San Francisco 49ers totaled 197 rushing yards], so we knew there was an opportunity for them to come in and run the ball. No matter what, you let teams run, they're going to run the ball. It opens other things up. We've talked about that every year I've been here, making teams one-dimensional. We have to do a better job of that."
There were some bright spots on Sunday, such as much-needed contributions from rookie linebacker Josh Uche (key tackle, quarterback hit) in his debut, second-year wideout Jakobi Meyers (six catches, 58 yards) coming through in a short-handed situation and Harris totaling 102 yards on 16 carries with a touchdown.
Those would have been some top storylines had Newton not lost the fumble in the fourth quarter and eventually led the Patriots to a victory. Instead, the slide continues.
"We have to continue to have a standard; it was set before I got here," said McCourty, now in his 11th season in New England. "We have to continue to demand that from each other, even though the games aren't going how we want, we're 2-5. But we can’t let the culture change."