ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) - The Buffalo Bills appear to be in denial identifying their shortcomings and the challenges ahead in staying afloat in the AFC playoff picture.
Though the signs have been apparent for much of the season, the lack of self-awareness became evident following a 14-10 loss to New England on Monday night, when the Bills withered in the blustery elements against the Patriots' relentless running attack.
There was coach Sean McDermott suggesting not to give Patriots coach Bill Belichick too much credit in dismissing a question over New England's run-heavy plan.
And yet, McDermott all but confirmed Belichick did more with less in a game the Patriots had the disadvantage of field position and still won with rookie Mac Jones throwing just three times.
It was evident in Bills safety Jordan Poyer suggesting the defense held up its end by limiting New England to 14 points, 11 first downs and 241 yards. And yet, he overlooked the critical junctures in which the defense sagged, such as the gaping hole Damien Harris ran through to open the scoring on a 64-yard run.
More troublesome was the defense failing to get a stop with the wind at Buffalo's back in the third quarter. The defense instead allowed New England to consume 8:34 of clock on a 14-play, 59-yard drive capped by Nick Folk's 34-yard field goal to finish the scoring in the fourth quarter.
At least, Josh Allen and the offense acknowledged frustrations over managing just 10 points on four drives inside the Patriots 20.
The Bills are not the confident group they were a year ago in claiming their first AFC East title since 1995, winning 13 games for the first time since '91 and enjoying their deepest playoff run in 27 years in losing to Kansas City in the conference championship game.
The Bills can hang their hat on beating the Chiefs this year, but what's followed since improving to 4-1 with a 38-20 win at Kansas City on Oct. 10 has been a consistently inconsistent lose-one, win-one pattern that's dropped them to 7-5.
Buffalo has yet to overcome a second-half deficit, has difficulty running the ball or stopping the run, and padded its record against mostly backups and rookie quarterbacks.
Perhaps, left tackle Dion Dawkins provided the best glimpse into the team's fragile psyche last week when asked how the Bills have managed the pressures of higher expectations this year.
"We're just fighting to continue to be us," Dawkins said.
"It's been an up and down battle, as you guys have seen. It's never easy. We've had a lot of lessons. We've had a lot of tough tough days," he added. "In this league, nothing is every promised, and it shows."
The Bills appear to be a team not ready to deal with the trappings of success, with cracks forming in the carefully groomed culture McDermott established upon his arrival in 2017.
The worries began in spring, when McDermott and GM Brandon Beane raised concerns over the team being at a competitive disadvantage if players didn't get vaccinated. Several players, starting with receiver Cole Beasley, vocally chose to ignore that message.
The concerns were realized over the past month with starting defensive tackle Star Lotulelei missing four games and starting right tackle Spencer Brown two on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Buffalo also could have used backup linebacker A.J. Klein's run-stopping presence against the Patriots had he not landed on the COVID-19 list hours before kickoff.
As mixed messages go, McDermott insists he continues to get through to his players, while in the next breath saying the team hasn't executed.
Buffalo's schedule doesn't get easier. Up next is a trip to Tampa Bay on Sunday, when the Bills will face old nemesis Tom Brady. While in New England, Brady went 32-3 against Buffalo to set the NFL record for most wins by a quarterback against one opponent.
Take away Allen's single-handed ability to extend plays with his mobility, not much.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
It may be too late in the season to expect Buffalo's running attack to find its legs. Allen's 422 yards rushing on 75 carries represent nearly half of the combined 893 yards, on 213 carries, Devin Singletary, Zack Moss and Matt Breida have generated.
WR Gabriel Davis scored Buffalo's lone TD and in showing he has a better rapport with Allen than veteran Emmanuel Sanders, who hasn't topped 30 yards receiving in each of his past four, and not scored since a two-TD outing against the Chiefs.
TE Dawson Knox. Caught just two of six passes thrown his way, and was flagged for a false start with Buffalo facing third-and-9 at the New England 13 with 2:11 remaining. The game was decided with Knox failing to out-muscle Adrian Phillips (who could have been flagged for holding) in the end zone on the next play, followed by Allen's pass getting batted down at the goal line on fourth down.
78 - Combined points the Bills have scored in five losses, as opposed to 258 in seven victories this season.
Though his coverage ability wasn't needed against New England, cornerback Tre'Davious White's (torn left knee ligament) absence could be key against Brady and the Buccaneers' NFL-leading passing attack.
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