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November 11. 2012 2:38AM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Patriots must pay Bills heed

Because the scoreboard ultimately suggested the game was a rout - and strictly by the numbers it's hard to classify a 52-28 final as anything but that - it's already been forgotten by some just how close the Week 4 clash between the Patriots and Bills really was.

Eventually New England pulled away by scoring on each of its final seven possessions, including touchdowns on the first six series of that sequence. But early in the third quarter the Patriots trailed 21-7. Even entering the fourth, the game was tied at 21 apiece. For three periods the teams were dead even, and until Ryan Fitzpatrick threw his third and fourth interceptions of the afternoon it looked as though his Bills had a real chance to hand the Pats what would've been their third straight loss, and send the reigning conference champs reeling to 1-3.

It didn't happen, of course. But especially when coupled with the two meetings between the sides last season, it should've nevertheless made clear that the Patriots' need to take the Bills seriously both in their preparation and throughout all of today's 60 minutes because it's unrealistic to expect to keep beating a team by merely performing in spurts.

They got away with it in September. And they got away with it on New Year's Day, when Buffalo took a 21-0 lead in the first quarter, and still led with 93 seconds left in the third period - then proceeded to get their doors blown off en route to a 49-21 defeat. But inconsistency cost the Patriots in last season's initial encounter, as they blew an early 21-0 advantage and lost on a buzzer-beating field goal.

Including that game, New England has outscored Buffalo 132-83 over those trio of tilts. However, in all three of those games the Bills were even with or better than the Patriots for three of the four quarters, and thus that overall margin is a bit misleading. Remove the one quarter in each game where New England was clearly the better team - so the first period of the first matchup of 2011, and the fourth periods of the two clashes since then --and the Bills have actually outscored the Patriots by an aggregate of 76-66 over the nine remaining quarters.

"We didn't play very well in the first half so we were down 21-7; it was a little bit of an adverse situation for us and we found a way to dig ourselves out of it," Tom Brady said, remembering his trip to Orchard Park, N.Y., six weeks ago. "Hopefully we don't have to dig ourselves out of it this week."

As long as Brady is their quarterback, the Patriots will be capable of digging themselves out when the situation dictates. And the Bills defense comes to Gillette Stadium this afternoon ranked as the NFL's second-worst in terms of points per game (31), yards per game (417.9) and rushing yards per game (169.5), so it's hard to envision that unit shutting down football's best offense to the point the Patriots are entirely out of the game.

But that still doesn't make it the Patriots' preferred way to play. At this point in the season - halfway through and coming off the bye week - consistency and improvement are the two things a team must show if it is to begin legitimizing its designs on making a deep playoff run, and today New England gets the opportunity to do both. The Pats can show how much they have grown since within this season. And they can make a statement that on the heels of their London mauling of the Rams they're ready to start playing consistent, complementary, complete football.

And if they don't, the price may well be paid in a tightening of things atop the AFC East.

"It was a real tight game at halftime and a couple plays there in the second half and that one (in Week 4) could have gone either way," coach Bill Belichick said. "Buffalo is a good team that has always given us trouble. Hopefully we can get off to a good start this week."

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UNDERRATED: C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. The Bills' talented tandem of running backs may be underrated only its own coaches. Last week Spiller and Jackson each had only six carries against Houston (despite averaging 5 yards per), while Fitzpatrick threw the ball 38 times. The Bills need to feature the NFL's sixth-best ground game more often than that to be successful.

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OVERRATED: Mario Williams. After becoming the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, the defensive end is tied for 30th in the league with only 4.5 sacks - two of which came against the Cardinals' hapless offensive line. He may have secretly been playing the first half of the year with a torn ligament in his wrist, and he's since had surgery, but so far his signing looks to be a bust.

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KEEP AN EYE ON...: Patriots' third-down efficiency. New England racked up 33 first downs in the earlier meeting, even though it was surprisingly only 4-for-11 (36 percent) on third down. Considering the Bills have the NFL's worst third-down defense (allowing a 46 percent conversion rate), and the Pats have the league's second-best third-down offense (49 percent), New England may move the ball better today than they did en route to 52 points at Buffalo.

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KEY MATCHUP: Rob Gronkowski vs. the Bills linebackers/secondary. In five games against his hometown Bills he's scored eight touchdowns, including one among his 104 receiving yards earlier this year. If Buffalo has any hope of slowing the Patriots, he's the first they'll need to stop.

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STAT OF THE WEEK: The Bills and Patriots enter the game tied for the NFL's fifth-highest passer rating against its defense, both checking in at 96.9. Only the Titans, Chiefs, Saints and Bengals are worse.

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Dave D’Onofrio covers Boston sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is Twitter: @davedonofrio

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