In a game that quarterback Cam Newton called a "must win," the hobbled, short-handed New England Patriots dropped a 24-21 decision to the host Buffalo Bills on Sunday. They have now lost four straight games for the first time since 2002, Bill Belichick's third year as head coach.
The Patriots drop to 2-5, creating a major obstacle for any hopes to qualify for the playoffs. The Patriots have made the playoffs each of the past 11 seasons and 16 of the past 17.
The Patriots showed more fight than they had in prior weeks and were in position to either win or tie in the final minute before Newton fumbled it away.
With Tuesday's NFL trade deadline, does Belichick stand pat? Or does the four-game skid and limited firepower on offense lead him to think big-picture and begin positioning the team for the future?
These are the type of questions not often asked at this time of the season in New England.
Describe the game in one or two words: Heartbreaking. After fighting their way into position to win, Newton's fumble in the red zone gave it away.
Troubling trend: The Patriots didn't score on offense in the first quarter, as they are the only team in the NFL to not score on offense in the first quarter this season. Their lone first-quarter points came on an interception return in Week 2 at Seattle. Meanwhile, the defense struggled against the run in the first quarter, leading to a Bills opening-drive touchdown, as the Patriots have now been outscored 36-7 in the first quarter this season.
QB breakdown: Newton was better than the past two weeks, which should help him hold on to the starting job, as the football was coming out of his hands with more decisiveness. There were also more designed runs for Newton, whose comfort level seemed greater. In fairness to Newton, the Patriots' talent at the skill positions is extremely modest, as all four receivers entered the NFL as undrafted free agents and the team had just one tight end active for the game. Newton was 15-of-25 for 174 yards, and added nine rushes for 54 yards and a touchdown.
Biggest hole in the game plan: Tackling against the run. Fundamental-type stuff. The Bills ran it right at the Patriots at times, and the tackling was atrocious -- particularly on the Bills' opening drives of each half. Part of that was the Patriots playing a lighter box to protect against the Bills' explosive passing attack, which is always a balance coaches are trying to strike with their plan.
Silver lining: Rookie linebacker Josh Uche, the second-round pick from Michigan, made his NFL debut and showed up with a pressure on third down. Uche was activated off injured reserve Saturday and is the type of athletic linebacker the Patriots need at the heart of the D. While he was just a niche part of the game plan Sunday, it was a performance on which to build.