BUFFALO, N.Y. (Dec. 7, 2005) -- The New England Patriots are slowly starting to resemble the team that won three of the last four Super Bowls.
Looking to wrap up their third straight AFC East title, the two-time defending champions visit the struggling Buffalo Bills.
The Patriots have won three of their last four games, and can secure the division crown this weekend with a win over Buffalo, and a Miami loss to playoff-contending San Diego.
That's good news for a team that also saw key contributors Corey Dillon, David Givens and Kevin Faulk return to action in a 16-3 win over the New York Jets last Sunday.
"The team just feels a little more comfortable," said Givens, who made five catches Sunday. "You have a lot of your weapons back, guys that have made big plays."
Dillon, the Patriots' leading rusher, scored the game's only touchdown and finished with 65 yards. New England dominated time of possession and total yards, outgaining the Jets 397-164 to pick up the victory.
"That was a big game for us," New England coach Bill Belichick said. "We were able to get the lead, play from ahead, and that's always the position you want to be in at the end of the game when they have to throw."
New England has won nine of the last 10 meetings with Buffalo, including a 21-16 victory in the first meeting this season. The Patriots have yet to win more than two straight games this season and are trying to avoid losing consecutive road games for the first time since 2002-03.
"I don't think we've been able to consistently be the same team," said Belichick, who has a 9-3 career record against Buffalo.
"A big part of our season has been defined by our lack of consistency in all three phases of the game. I think if we could develop a more consistent pattern, then there would be a lot better barometer on how the team is going to perform on a consistent basis."
At least New England has something to play for.
The Bills have lost three in a row, including Sunday's 24-23 loss at Miami in which they squandered a 20-point, fourth-quarter lead.
Making matters worse, star wide receiver Eric Moulds was excused from practice Wednesday and Thursday amid reports that he would be suspended by coach Mike Mularkey, who denied the reports in a press conference.
"Don't put words in my mouth," he said.
Mularkey declined to discuss Moulds' status further, despite repeated questions.
At one point he chided reporters, saying: "What part of what I'm telling you guys is not getting through in your questions?"
Moulds had expressed frustration with the team's play-calling Sunday after failing to catch a pass for the first time in 121 games, ending the fourth-longest active streak in the NFL.
He was to meet with Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson to resolve the dispute.
Buffalo has lost five of its last six games and is all but mathematically eliminated from the playoff race. The Bills, winless on the road this season, haven't made the playoffs since 1999.
"This game today couldn't have painted a better picture of our season," safety Troy Vincent said after Sunday's loss. "We had everything going right for us, in our favor, but we let it slip away. How do you lose a game like that?"
Lee Evans caught three touchdown passes as the Bills sprinted to a 21-0 first quarter lead. But they missed repeated chances to close out the game and failed to score on their final 10 possessions.
"You can't play like the game was over, but maybe we played like the game was over," Mularkey said. "We didn't finish the job."
Moulds spent most of the final three quarters on the bench. The 10-year veteran leads the Bills with 54 catches, but the offense - ranked 29th in the NFL - has been stifled for much of the year with second-year quarterback J.P. Losman at the helm.
STANDINGS: Patriots - 1st place, AFC East. Bills - 3rd place, AFC East.
PATRIOTS LEADERS: Offense - Tom Brady, 3,301 passing yards and 18 passing TDs; Dillon, 506 rushing yards and 8 rushing TDs; Deion Branch, 65 receptions, 800 receiving yards and 4 receiving TDs. Defense - Rosevelt Colvin, 4.5 sacks; Ellis Hobbs and Mike Vrabel, 2 interceptions.
BILLS LEADERS: Offense - Losman, 1,159 passing yards and 7 passing TDs; Willis McGahee, 1,029 rushing yards and 4 rushing TDs; Moulds, 54 receptions; Evans, 531 receiving yards and 6 receiving TDs. Defense - Aaron Schobel, 9 sacks; Terrence McGee and Vincent, 3 interceptions.
PATRIOTS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 88.7 yards per game (27th in NFL); Passing Offense - 263.2 ypg (3rd); Total Offense - 351.8 ypg (8th). Rushing Defense - 112.3 ypg (17th); Passing Defense - 255.4 ypg (31st); Total Defense - 367.8 ypg (29th).
BILLS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 107.7 yards per game (18th); Passing Offense - 140.8 ypg (29th); Total Offense - 248.4 ypg (29th). Rushing Defense - 140.3 ypg (31st); Passing Defense - 191.8 ypg (12th); Total Defense - 332 ypg (26th).
LAST MEETING: Oct. 30; Patriots, 21-16. At Foxborough, Mass., Dillon had two 1-yard touchdown runs in the final seven minutes as the Patriots rallied from a 16-7 fourth-quarter deficit.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Patriots - New England is 14-3 in December since the start of the 2001 season. ... K Adam Vinatieri became the Patriots' all-time leading scorer last week, recording 10 points to give him 1,135 for his career, passing Gino Cappelletti's mark of 1,130. ... Brady has a 58.2 passer rating and six interceptions in his last two road starts. Bills - Buffalo has won four consecutive home games against division opponents, its longest streak since winning 17 in a row from 1988-1992. ... WR Evans became the first Bills player to score three touchdowns in one quarter. ... RB McGahee has averaged 118.0 rushing yards in his last four home games against AFC East opponents.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Patriots - 3-3 on the road; Bills - 4-2 at home.