In the NFL, good teams can go on the road, not play their best, and still come out with a win against a team they're supposed to beat. Buffalo did just that last week against the Jets in New York.
But to take the next step and supplant the Patriots as the cream of the AFC East crop, the emerging Bills would need to prove themselves by beating New England back home in Orchard Park – something they've been unable to do on a regular basis for the better part of the last 20 years.
From the Patriots' perspective, no Stephon Gilmore, no receivers with significant experience, no tight ends, save Ryan Izzo – no chance, therefore, for New England to upset the AFC East-leading Bills in Buffalo? Not so fast…
"I feel like the whole game, we felt like we had a chance," second-year pass catcher Jakobi Meyers maintained later. "Things weren't always going the way we wanted to, but we had a chance to pull it out, to win it, but things didn't bounce our way."
As if it weren't tough enough for QB Cam Newton to get something going in the undermanned passing game, the Buffalo weather was being uncooperative, particularly at the start, conspiring against them with high winds and heavy rains that could have made throwing and catching the football even more difficult.
"I thought it was fine. I didn't think [the weather] affected us at all," declared second-year ball carrier Damien Harris. "It wasn't the most ideal conditions, but I don't think it hindered us from doing anything we wanted to do."
Of course, Mother Nature would impact the Bills' offense as well, providing an equalizing element to the proceedings. Early on, Buffalo looked like the more put-together team, able to run the ball effectively, make necessary plays in the passing game, and hold the Patriots to a couple of punts. Bills RB Zack Moss found the end zone at the end of a 10-play, 78-yard drive to give Buffalo a touchdown lead on their first series.
"The weather definitely dictated what they were going to try to do and they came out and did it," remarked rookie LB Josh Uche following his Patriots and NFL debut.
Yet, as blue skies and sunshine attempted to poke through the clouds midway through the second quarter, it seemed to represent a ray of hope. New England only found itself down 7-3 when it forced a Bills punt and took possession.
The Patriots eventually punted it back to Buffalo, but driving for what looked like at least a field goal just after the two-minute warning, Bills QB Josh Allen tossed an interception to J.C. Jackson. It appeared Allen and his intended target weren't on the same page with respect to the pass route, allowing Jackson to make a relatively easy pick that he returned into Bills territory.
With eight seconds left in the first half, kicker Nick Folk hammered home his second field goal of the afternoon, trimming Buffalo's lead to 7-6 at intermission. Meyers proved a bright spot for New England in the first half, leading his team in receptions with four for 41 yards on six targets. He'd finish with six grabs for 58 yards, leading all Patriots receivers.
"It's a stepping stone" Meyers observed. "Trying to build and get better every week."
To open the second half, Buffalo's offense again mounted a methodical march, this time 75 yards, culminating in Moss' second rushing TD of the day. Rookie Bills kicker Tyler Bass knocked through the PAT to give Buffalo a 14-6 advantage.
Still, the Patriots' defense helped keep the offense within striking distance by pressuring Allen and thwarting the second Buffalo drive of the third quarter. Newton and New England again had a chance to make some noise with a drive that started well within Buffalo real estate.
This time around, the ground game came through, with Harris scampering into the end zone with a well-blocked 22-yard run – his first scoring jaunt in the NFL. Newton then completed the ensuing two-point conversion toss to Meyers to knot the score at 14.
New England tried to maintain momentum by hoping to catch the Bills off-guard with an unexpected on-side kick attempt. However, Buffalo was wise to the trick and recovered at the Patriots' 45-yard line. Working with a gifted short field, Allen took advantage, eventually running it in himself on a one-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, the Patriots' D was further weakened by the loss of DL and co-captain Lawrence Guy. Already hobbled with an ankle injury, Guy left the game prematurely with a shoulder issue.
With 10 minutes to go, down 21-14, New England was in the shadow of Buffalo's goal line, thanks in large part to several big Harris runs. Newton then matched Allen's TD run with one of his own. Folk's successful extra point tied things up once more. This marked the Patriots' first back-to-back TD drives of the 2020 season, and not a moment too soon.
The Bills marched right down the field thereafter, although rookie Bills receiver Gabriel Davis saw an Allen pass go through his hands in the end zone late in the fourth, meaning Bass had to come back on to kick Buffalo back into the lead.
So, with four minutes remaining, Newton and the Patriots had the ball with a chance at least to tie, if not take their first lead of the day and maybe leave town with a win. It appeared very much as if that was going to happen as the offense worked its way to the Buffalo 19.
Next play, on a designed run, Newton was racing toward the end zone when reserve Bills defensive tackle Justin Zimmer punched the ball out of his hands. Backup safety Dean Marlowe, playing in place of injured starter Micah Hyde, recovered for Buffalo and all Allen had to do was take a couple of knees to run out the final seconds.
"In that situation, everything was rolling, as we would have expected… It's unacceptable. I have to protect the ball better," Newton admitted to reporters during post-game comments. "I'm affecting this teams' success because of my lackluster performances. Coach [Belichick] trusts me with the ball in my hands, and I wouldn't want it any other way. I just have to do a better job protecting it."
As a result, the Bills remain firmly atop the AFC East at 6-2, with a two-game cushion over second-place Miami. With the loss, the Patriots fall to 2-5 on the season and in the unusual position of third in the AFC East.
Harris, who topped 100 yards rushing for the second time this season, gave voice to the overall mood of his teammates at this stage of the season.
"It's tough. Losing is never easy. Especially in a situation like that. We fought hard, played a great team, a tough team, a competitive team. Hats off to them. We just didn't make enough plays. We shot ourselves in the foot. Nothing we can do about it now, except… back to work tomorrow.
"We're frustrated, I'm frustrated, the team's frustrated. We just have to keep believing in each other. We're in a tough spot, we dug ourselves a hole, but that doesn't mean we can't dig ourselves out of it.
"But it's not just about having faith. You have to put the confidence out on the field. I'm confident in everybody, but we still have to do our jobs. We're putting our best effort out there, but it's not enough. Everybody has to be willing to do more if we want to turn the season around."
Safety and co-captain Devin McCourty seemed to concur with Harris, saying, "We have good leadership in this locker room, and it's our job to keep it going. I think we have a good football team here that wants to buy in and do the right things. That was evident in the effort [today]. It was a hard-fought game, went right down to the end.
"We just have to find that extra play or two that gets us a win. I think guys can sense that. That'll help us stay together and continue to fight and try to get better through this season."