For a minute, it looked like the same old Bills and the same old Patriots.
Buffalo on the verge of blowing a winnable game against a New England team that even if it hadn't played its best, was about to walk out of Bills Stadium victorious for the umpteenth time under Bill Belichick.
And then, a role reversal. Trailing by a field goal, the Patriots swiftly had the rug pulled out from underneath them when Cam Newton lost a fumble at the Buffalo 14-yard line with 0:37 left, enabling the Bills to escape with a 24-21 victory which puts them firmly in the driver's seat for their first AFC East title since 1995.
"It's unacceptable," Newton said. "Everything was rolling. Once again, I have to do a better job of protecting the football."
Prior to his fumble, Newton had been better for the Patriots than he had at any point since returning from his bout with COVID-19, completing 15 of 25 passes for 174 yards and not throwing an interception. While his mechanics still left something to be desired, he had New England in position to win late.
Another slow start to the game did the Patriots no favors, however, as the team punted on their opening possession before proceeding to allow the Bills to run amok on a 10-play, 78-yard scoring drive which culminated in an 8-yard touchdown run for Zack Moss.
It was a sign of things to come for Buffalo, which like the Broncos and 49ers before them, encountered little to no resistance rushing the ball on New England. The Bills amassed 190 yards on 38 carries, giving the Patriots their first stretch of allowing 130 or more yards on the ground in three straight games since 2013.
New England did tighten up defensively, and managed a pair of first half field goals off the foot of Nick Folk, good from 43 and 33 yards, to pull within 7-6 at the break. Curiously, Bill Belichick opted to attempt the second field goal with Folk on third down, the logic being that the Patriots had no timeouts left and there were just 0:12 on the clock.
The Bills reverted to bully ball to begin the second half, marching 75 yards in five plays to open up a 14-6 lead over the Patriots.
After the teams exchanged punts, New England finally managed to find the end zone for the first time since the fourth quarter of its game vs. Denver on Oct. 18, a Damien Harris 22-yard rush the drought-snapper with 3:03 remaining in the third.
It was part of a career day for Harris, who amassed 102 yards on the ground in all.
The Patriots tied the game at 14-apiece after Newton connected with Jakobi Meyers on a two-point conversion pass.
Perhaps in an attempt to capitalize on New England's momentum, Belichick called for an on-sides kick, with disastrous results: Buffalo recovered and promptly got back in the end zone on a 2-yard rush by Josh Allen with 13:12 left in regulation.
To their credit, the Patriots responded again, this time on a Newton keeper from 2 yards on at the end of a seven-play, 72-yard drive with 9:36 left.
Buffalo answered with a 28-yard field goal off the leg of Tyler Bass, the kicker drafted in the sixth round -- and 29 picks after New England selected Justin Rohrwasser -- of the 2020 draft for a lead it wouldn't relinquish.
Despite the career days for Harris and Meyers, there would be no happy ending for the undermanned Patriots in Buffalo, who are now 3 1/2 games behind the Bills in the AFC East -- and two games back of the Dolphins.
It's the earliest in the season the Patriots have surpassed their loss total from the year before (12-4 in 2019) since 2008, when they lost in Week 3 to fall to 2-1 a season after going 16-0 in the regular seaosn.
After the NFL trade deadline on Tuesday, the Patriots will play at the Jets on Monday Night Football next week at 8:15 p.m.