Patriots have located a problem

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / December 20, 2009

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This afternoon, the Patriots will confront a 5-8 opponent they have beaten 12 consecutive times. The Buffalo Bills, under different circumstances, would be an easy team to dismiss or overlook. For the Patriots, though, the profile of their opponent stands in contrast to the urgency of their own situation.

The Patriots need a win, and they need to earn it on the road. Holding a thin edge in the AFC East playoff race, they might have their last chance to solve their most glaring deficiency before it dooms their season.

The Patriots will return to Ralph Wilson Stadium today for the first time since Dec. 28, the last day they won at an opponent’s home stadium (they beat the Buccaneers in London Oct. 25 as the “away’’ team). The Patriots will try for the sixth time this season to notch a true road victory in a rematch against the Bills, a vastly changed team since their memorable season-opening meeting.

Winning on the road often separates the NFL’s wheat from its chaff, a point best made by the uncommon company in which the Patriots find themselves. The Lions and the Bucs are the only other NFL teams without a win on an opponent’s home field.

“It’s hard to be a good football team if you can’t win on the road,’’ Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. “And we haven’t done a good job of that this year.’’

The playoff race makes today’s game pivotal for the Patriots. With a victory, they can remain above a muddled AFC wild-card landscape and maintain control of their postseason fate. With a loss, they will be forced to scramble to avoid the same heartache they felt at the end of last season, when they missed the playoffs because of a division tiebreaker.

The Patriots are clinging to a one-game lead over the Dolphins and Jets in the East, and a victory would solidify their position and bolster their chances in case of a tie, particularly against the Dolphins, who own strong division and conference records.

The Patriots stand at 3-2 within the AFC East, which is the first tiebreaker, and are 5-4 in conference games, the second tiebreaker. The Dolphins already have sealed a 4-2 division record and are also 5-4 against AFC opponents, with a game today at Tennessee. The Jets lag behind at 2-4 and 5-5.

All of that will be moot for the Patriots if they win their final three games. It will require winning away from Foxborough, when “you’re going into a jungle, anywhere you go,’’ defensive lineman Jarvis Green said.

Like most things for most of this decade, the Patriots were better than anyone else at winning on the road. The Patriots under Bill Belichick stood at 49-23 on the road after going 6-2 in 2008.

Then came this season. The Patriots have scored 19.6 points per game on the road, tied for 17th in the NFL, compared to 30.7 points per game at home, third in the league. The Patriots have allowed 26.2 points in road games, 28th in the NFL, compared to 13.7 at home, which ranks second.

Some of that disparity is because of scheduling more than location. The Patriots had to face the undefeated Colts and Saints on the road this year, and their five true road games all came against teams that currently own winning records.

The lack of a real road victory has become a worn topic in the locker room during weeks leading up to away games, but its importance has kept it from becoming tiresome.

“I’m not sick of it,’’ running back Kevin Faulk said. “Because we need a road win. If we want to get where we need to get, we’re going to have to win a game on the road.’’

The question nagging the Patriots is, why?

“If you could put a finger on it,’’ Faulk said, “we wouldn’t even be talking about it right now.’’

“It all just boils down to inconsistencies,’’ defensive end Ty Warren said. “It’s simple, but it’s true. If you’re not consistent, there’s going to be some losses in there somewhere.’’

Aside from the schedule, the Patriots’ performance in the second halves of games has dictated their lack of road success. The Patriots led four of their five road losses at halftime, and they’ve scored 24 points in the second halves of those five games combined. During practice last week, following the last-minute loss at Miami, Belichick made “finish’’ the one-word theme of the week. For one game, it worked. The Patriots outscored the Panthers, 13-3, in the second half last Sunday to snap a two-game losing streak.

In their first meeting with the Bills, the Patriots escaped with a victory after their miraculous touchdown-fumbled kickoff-touchdown sequence in the last minutes of the fourth quarter. The Bills never fully recovered, evidenced by their changes since.

The Bills’ coach that night was Dick Jauron, fired after a 3-6 start and replaced by Perry Fewell, who is 2-2, including a victory over the Dolphins. The Bills’ quarterback that night was Trent Edwards, injured and then replaced by Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is 3-3 as a starter.

Fewell said his promotion from defensive coordinator led to “not a lot of wholesale changes,’’ but the Bills have used his status as motivation. Fewell never had been a head coach before, and the Bills, long eliminated from serious playoff contention, have made removing “interim’’ from Fewell’s title a cause for the remainder of the season.

“It’s tough,’’ Fitzpatrick said. “It’s just something that’s part of the NFL hype and you just have to go with it and roll with it and just continue to play hard. As the season goes, you’re so focused on the opponents every week you just kind of move on. It feels like right now that Perry’s been our coach for the whole year.’’

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