FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The Patriots have grown accustomed to playing the role of front-runner in the AFC East under Bill Belichick.
But at 2-4 for the first time since 2000 and in their first season without Tom Brady since he joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team that has won 11 straight division crowns has quickly embraced the role of the chaser as it prepares to visit division-leading Buffalo.
That’s meant making an adjustment in attitude as much as X’s and O’s this week.
“Right now we’d be crazy to think coming into the game that we’re the team to beat,” safety Devin McCourty said. “This is going to be a huge challenge for us on the road, the top team, we’ve got to really bring our A-game coming off three straight losses. So, I think for us, our backs are against the wall."
McCourty would know. Since he arrived in New England as a rookie in 2010, he has known nothing but division titles. He’s also enjoyed dominance over the Bills, having been a part of each of the Patriots’ seven straight victories over their division foes.
It’s also why he has no problem acknowledging, as many of his teammates have since last week’s 33-6 loss to the 49ers, that their effort hasn’t consistently been where it’s needed to be through six games.
The defense has done its best to keep opponents at bay this season while the offense finds its footing under quarterback Cam Newton. But the Patriots are still giving up 23.8 points per game. That ranks 12th in the NFL, down from a league-best 14 points per game allowed in 2019.
After a promising start to the season, offensive production has also waned. New England has scored just one touchdown in the two games since Newton returned from the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Newton said his takeaways from the past two weeks are clear.
“Losing is not acceptable in this locker room. In this county. In this state. In this area. In this region," Newton said. "So Cameron Newton, you need to pick your expletive up. That’s what I’ve learned.”
He could also be without two receivers against the Bills.
N'Keal Harry, who is in the concussion protocol after leaving last week's loss to San Francisco, missed practice Wednesday and Thursday. Julian Edelman was also out Thursday with a knee issue that has previously limited him during practices this season.
Edelman leads the Patriots with 21 catches for 315 yards, but has yet to catch a touchdown. Harry is tied for second with 19 receptions for 172 yards and a TD.
“He’s my guy. His presence was missed today and what he brings to this team," Newton said of Edelman. "He’s more than just an unsung hero. He is everything the Patriots represent.”
McCourty said their collective struggles have fostered an atmosphere in the locker room not of panic, but a return to basics, along with an increased focus on correcting their issues.
“Each day that you come here and you fight, I think builds bonds,” McCourty said. “It lets a guy know next to you that ‘Hey, this guy’s going to be here, he’s going to fight.’ We’ve had guys on his team who have been on other teams where things aren’t going well. I’ve had conversations with them, and they said they can see it when it starts going bad, how it’s just like the locker room kind of dismantles.
“But each day we come in ready to work and put in a hard day of work. I think we continue to build that. We continue to fight and stick together.”
For coach Belichick that means a recommitment to their principles “in the meetings, in the walkthrough, in film sessions and on the practice field.”
“We’ll see where that puts us, I don’t know, but we certainly need to improve from where we are, and we will,” he said. “Hopefully, that will translate into better performance on Sunday. It usually does.”
While that may not be a silver bullet to getting back on track, running back James White says it underscores that wholesale change isn’t necessary with a lot of football still to be played.
“It’s the same message, just the sense of urgency just has to keep going up,” he said. “It’s just taking it step by step. Everybody’s trying to do their job to the best of their ability, and we’ll be just fine.”
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