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September 30. 2012 12:14AM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Patriots need to hold on

When New England traveled to Buffalo for its game 371 days ago, as it will do again this afternoon, one trend came to an end. For the first time in eight years, the Patriots lost to the Bills.

Little did anybody know at the time, however, that a new trend had begun. And this one has been far less kind to the Patriots.

That day at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Pats coughed up what was earlier a three-score lead by getting outscored by 10 points in the fourth quarter — eventually dropping a 34-31 decision on a buzzer-beating field goal, and subsequently coming to know that feeling all too well.

That was the first, but of the six games New England has lost since the start of the 2011 season, five have now been decided within the final minute of regulation. Four of them have also included New England holding a lead in the final period before giving up the game-winning score, which is the script that played out last week in Baltimore, and in both losses to the Giants last season — including Super Bowl XLVI.

Meanwhile, the Patriots have only twice won via fourth-quarter comeback in that span, suggesting a team that once hung its helmet on always making clutch plays when it most mattered is suddenly struggling to close games. And unless they exhibit that killer instinct, or at least a better ability to play situational football late in contests, that could be their fatal flaw for a second straight season..

“We did enough good things to put ourselves in a good position — ahead in the fourth quarter and all that,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Sunday’s 31-30 loss to the Ravens. “But we just couldn’t do all the things we need to do at the end of the game to win it, and that’s disappointing. We work awfully hard on those things and we just came up short. I have to do a better job. We all have to do a better job.”

The game at Baltimore fell apart in all three phases, as after New England stuffed the Ravens’ attempted conversion of fourth down with 10:50 to go, the Patriots gave away a 30-21 lead. The defense couldn’t get a stop on either of Baltimore’s final two series. Zoltan Mesko’s final punt flew only 30 yards, failing to pin the Ravens inside their own 20. And the offense couldn’t get a critical first down on their last possession.

In fact, of the four first downs the Patriots collected over the game’s final 10 minutes, only two came in the course of play (two others were by penalty). As a result, much has been made of the Patriots’ play selection during that sequence, especially when New England ran the ball six times for a total of three yards in the fourth quarter although Tom Brady’s passing attack had been moving the ball effectively all game.

The logic, of course, is that running the ball keeps the clock moving. Meanwhile, critics of that strategy have argued this week that the Patriots would’ve been better off leaving the game in Brady’s hands even if that risks a time-stopping incompletion.

But those debates ignore the overarching point: No matter the nature of the play called, the Patriots were in a position to win the game by simply executing. It used to be a given that they’d do that better than their opponents, and became a hallmark of their dynasty — though unless they can reverse the trend, it’s now threatening to be their demise.

“We had a chance to win it,” Brady said after the loss at Baltimore. “We just don’t play well when we need to. Certainly, we’ve got to play our best when it means the most, and we need to start winning close games.”

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OVERRATED: Bad starts to a season. The Giants won the Super Bowl last season despite sitting at 7-7 through 14 games — and they’re hardly the outlier in recent history. Since the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXIX, only two of seven champs have enjoyed a playoff bye, while three titlists have been forced to win three road games within the conference playoffs. The 2005 Steelers were 7-5 at one point; the ‘07 Giants were 7-4; the ‘10 Packers were 8-6; and the ‘11 Giants finished 9-7. Today’s game is being called a must-win by some for the 1-2 Patriots. It’s not.

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UNDERRATED: The absence of Julian Edelman. By itself, the loss of Edelman to a hand injury may not be major, but between he and Aaron Hernandez the Patriots are down two of their primary pass catchers and play makers. Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd are still there even if Rob Gronkowski gets the blanket coverage he’s been getting, but Edelman’s absence means a lot of snaps for Deion Branch.

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KEEP AN EYE ON: the Patriots’ ability to finish drives. Last year Stephen Gostkowski attempted his 10th field goal of the season in Week 6, so it’s damning that he’s already 9 of 10 through three games this season. A big reason New England has lost twice is its inability to take full advantage of scoring opportunities, having converted only half of their red-zone opportunities into touchdowns, after doing so at a 65 percent clip in 2011.

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KEY MATCHUP: Gronkowski vs. Buffalo’s linebackers and safeties. A native upstate New Yorker, the Patriots’ tight end has seven touchdowns in four career games against Buffalo — including four last year, when he totaled 15 catches for 217 yards in two games. So far this season he’s been opposing defenses’ top priority, and often asked to help block, but today could present an opportunity to get him reestablished as a weapon.

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STAT OF THE WEEK: Brady has led five fourth-quarter comebacks in his past 60 starts (one every 12 games). He did so 20 times in his first 124 career starts (one every 6.2 games).

Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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