During the decades while Bill Belichick has been their head coach some things have been inarguably true about the New England Patriots:
— They improve throughout the season and play their best football late, usually in December.
— They have always — always! — authored their defensive game plan around the idea of taking away what the opponent does best or containing the opponent’s best offensive player so he doesn’t beat them.
Then you have the 2021 New England Patriots in the last two weeks.
And neither of those reliable truisms have manifested.
The Patriots got to their bye weekend Dec. 12 with a 9-4 record and in control of the AFC East. At one point the Patriots were the No. 2 seed in the conference.
Then came a loss to the Indianapolis Colts last week which was followed on Sunday by a 33-21 loss to the division rival Buffalo Bills.
Suddenly the team that’s supposed to improve as the season marches on finds itself in a slump, occupying the No. 6 seed, and at risk of falling out of the playoffs altogether unless something changes.
"Wish I knew," safety Devin McCourty said after the Bills loss. "It’s too late in the season to not play your best football. We’ve got to play better. We need to make a play. We are not making those plays. It hasn’t been good. It’s up to us as a team."
The Patriots haven’t made enough plays and that was a theme against the Bills.
"We just haven’t been executing to the best of our ability," receiver Jakobi Meyers said. "That’s the NFL. They’re going to execute or we are. Either one. Whoever does is going to win. Whoever doesn’t is going to lose.
"We haven’t been doing it to the best of our ability. If we want to win, we’ve got to go into the locker room, look each other in the eyes, and say, ’We’ve got to do it right. Do the hard things right.’"
The Patriots have also been unable to contain, much less stop, what the opponents do best.
The Colts, for example, are a running team. That’s what they do best offensively. There’s a reason running back Jonathan Taylor leads the NFL in rushing.
So the Patriots needed to stop Taylor but he rushed for 170 yards on 29 carries against Belichick’s team.
The Bills, meanwhile, are a passing team. They go as quarterback Josh Allen goes. It’s why, as Bills’ defensive tackle noted, Allen makes "a quarter of a billion dollars."
Well, the Patriots again failed to even contain what the Bills do best. Allen was the best player on the field at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
It was bad enough that Allen passed for 314 yards and 2 touchdowns but he made plays on big downs.
The Bills’ offense converted 6 of 12 on third down and 3 of 4 on fourth down.
The Bills did not punt. Afterward, punter Matt Haack joked with teammates he’d never played a game in which he wasn’t needed.
But it was worse than that for the Patriots because this was the first time the Patriots under Belichick did not force a punt. Belichick has coached the team since 2000.
"Buffalo receivers played well, they threw the ball well, they ran after the catch well," Belichick said. "They did a good job. Did a better job than we did, that’s for sure."
It’s fair to credit the other guys for making plays because the Bills definitely did that. But it was surprising seeing it against the Patriots in December’s final week.
It obviously surprised the Patriots as well.
"It’s our own fault," offensive lineman Dave Andrews said. "There is no one to blame except for us. That is what it is, can’t change it now, got to get back to work tomorrow."