ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — It had become known as the annual feel-good trip for the Patriots.
Quick flight to Western New York, grab some wings, maybe a beef on weck, hand the Bills a demoralizing loss in front of their frozen and frenzied fans, and head back to New England.
And then, 2020.
No Bills Mafia. No Patriots victory. And an empty feeling in the belly on the plane ride home.
The Patriots were dealt their fourth straight loss of the year after Cam Newton’s fumble on the final drive sealed Buffalo’s 24-21 win Sunday.
“We didn’t make enough plays throughout the game,” said coach Bill Belichick. “We’ll just have to go out there and continue to work hard and play better and improve. We had our opportunities today, obviously. We’ve got to be able to do a little bit more with them … coaching, playing, all three phases of the game, we just came up a little bit short. So, it’s disappointing.”
The Patriots (2-5) appeared to find a second-half rhythm, scoring a pair of touchdowns fueled by the power running of Damien Harris and Newton, and some smashmouth work by the offensive line.
Newton marched his club to the Buffalo 19 with 37 seconds left, from where it appeared the Patriots would do no worse than a game-tying field goal attempt from Nick Folk before disaster struck.
Newton swept around left tackle for a 5-yard gain before Bills tackle Justin Zimmer swooped in from behind and knocked the ball loose. Dean Marlowe covered it up, and ended the game.
The Patriots had preached ball security all week and until Newton’s hiccup, they had protected the piggy perfectly.
“It’s unacceptable. I’ve got to protect the ball better,” said Newton, who has thrown seven interceptions this season. “I’m still jeopardizing this team’s success because of my lackluster job protecting the football.”
Newton, who threw for 174 yards and rushed for 54, will be back under center.
“Cam’s our quarterback,” said Belichick. “That’s the way it’s been all year.”
It was the third time this season the Patriots came up with bupkis despite having a chance to pull out a come-from-behind win in the waning moments.
“We have to be better at situational football,” said Newton. “It’s up to me to execute better.”
Buffalo, which is sitting in the cat bird’s seat atop the AFC East at 6-2, rushed for 190 yards and three touchdowns, controlling the line of scrimmage and creating lots of space for backs Devin Singletary (14 carries, 86 yards) and Zack Moss (14 carries, 81 yards).
The Bills stampeded through the Patriots defense — and a stiff wind-swept rain — on their opening drive, rumbling 78 yards on 10 plays capped by Moss’s 8-yard run.
New England came up empty on its first two drives (zero offensive points in the first quarter this season), but the defense was holding Josh Allen in check, too.
Nick Folk’s 43-yarder got the Patriots on the board early in the second quarter.
The Bills moved deep into New England territory late in the first half when J.C. Jackson picked off an Allen pass meant for Stefon Diggs, sidestepped Diggs, and returned it to midfield.
Newton completed three passes to get the Patriots to the 15, but with just 12 ticks left and no timeouts, Belichick elected to let Folk kick a 33-yarder on third down to trim the deficit to 7-6.
“Wanted to ensure the 3 points,” said Belichick, knowing a sack or any tackle inbounds would have ended the half.
With the rain done — but not the wind — the Bills started the second half as they did the first, rumbling 75 yards on five plays culminating in Moss’s 4-yard beast-mode run, where he seemingly carried New England’s front seven into the end with him for a 14-6 lead.
The Patriots then scored their first touchdown since Oct. 18 when Harris (16 carries, 102 yards) swept in from 22 yards. Newton hit Jakobi Meyers (six catches, 58 yards) on the 2-point conversion to tie it at 14.
Belichick tried to build on the momentum, ordering an onside kick, but it backfired when Tyler Matakevich smothered Jake Bailey’s hopper at the New England 45.
“We were trying to make a positive play,” the coach said.
Nine plays later Allen punched it in for the 21-14 lead.
Newton matched Allen with a 2-yard scamper to tie the affair again. Harris (four carries, 39 yards) and Damiere Byrd (two catches, 31 yards) were huge on the drive.
Buffalo took the ensuing kickoff to the New England 10, where the drive stalled and the Bills had to settle for Tyler Bass’s 28-yard field goal, setting the stage for New England’s final, ill-fated drive.
Newton completed three passes for 23 yards and rushed for 24 yards on the march before Zimmer spoiled the fun.
“Losing is very frustrating. The frustration level is definitely high,” said Harris. “Moral victories mean nothing in this organization. We’re frustrated. I’m frustrated. The team is frustrated. We’ve just got to do better.”
Jim McBride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.