FOXBORO, Mass. — Back just before this NFL season began, my prediction was that the Bills would be improved, but still go 6-10.
Any number of Buffalo fans chided me, certain that this was an 8-, 9- or 10-win team.
Well, on Sunday evening in a driving rain at Gillette Stadium, the Bills made good on my prognostication about their record ... but I’m much more concerned about the first half of it.
My inclination is to feel that rookie coach Doug Marrone’s team is better than its four predecessors that went 6-10 under Dick Jauron and Perry Fewell and 4-12, 6-10 and 6-10 with Chan Gailey.
But you wonder.
Buffalo’s 34-20 loss to the Patriots made some concerning points.
Start with what we already knew before kickoff ... that rookie first-round draft choice EJ Manuel, the player deemed to be the Bills’ franchise quarterback, was inactive due to a third knee injury in four months, the latter two of which caused him to miss six regular-season games.
With under 10 full games played (4-6 as a starter) the sample size is too small to ascertain if he’s injury-prone, slow-to-heal or merely not NFL-tough.
It might even be just an aberration.
What’s certain is that Buffalo’s front office and coaching staff won’t know until next season.
THEN there’s coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense.
A week ago it teased us with a glittering 19-0 shutout of Miami that featured a season-high seven sacks and surrendered a microscopic 103 yards total offense.
But against the Patriots, Buffalo was stampeded by a 6-foot, 250-pound horse named LeGarrette Blount who rushed for a career-best 189 yards on 24 carries, including TD runs of 35 and 36 yards.
And, despite his unlikely frame, he also managed to embarrass the Bills’ kickoff return team which let him go 83 and 62 yards on his two attempts.
On a day when the weather dictated reliance on the ground game, Pettine’s crew was powerless to stop New England which rolled up a numbing 267 yards, 85 more than the previous worst of this season.
AND THAT might have been aided by a second straight embarrassment for Buffalo defensive tackle Marcell Dareus.
Last week he sat out the first quarter of the Dolphins game as punishment for being late.
On Sunday, he was held out of the entire first half for the very same reason.
Marrone declined comment while a humbled Dareus admitted to the media that, at age 23, he has some growing up to do.
“I hate putting my team in a position like that,” he said. “(Being on time) is a team rule and I’ve got to respect it ... Being late, there’s no excuse.
“I apologized to my (teammates) and let them know I’m sorry for what happened (in) the game today and, of course, last week.”
Unfortunately for the Bills, his carelessness was punitive to the team.
While he sat for the opening 30 minutes, the Patriots ran for 173 yards.
Do you think a 6-foot-3, 330-pound run-stuffer playing the best football of his 3-year pro career (tied for third on the team in tackles with the most stops by a defensive lineman and 7.5 sacks coming in) might have made a difference?
AND WHEN he finally did get in, Dareus’ gaffe helped put the game out of reach.
Early in the fourth quarter, with New England up 16-10, the Bills forced a field goal attempt on 4th-and-1 at the Buffalo 11.
But Dareus, lined up in the middle, jumped offside and gave the Pats’ a first down that they turned into a TD on the next snap.
“I was so mad (at myself),” Dareus said. “I already felt like I put my team in the worst possible position by not being out there in the first half. In the second half I wanted to give everything and be able to show my team I was there for them.
“The offsides penalty really killed me ... it hit me in the gut and tore me up. I want to win and I want to do the best for my team.”
BUT BILLS’ fans are used to disappointment ... as in 14 straight years without a playoff appearance.
Afterward, Marrone shared the lament of the Buffalo faithful.
“I actually had in mind coming in here and winning the game,” he said. “I felt really good about (it). I felt that we had good plans and a good formula for what we needed to do to win (but) we went out there and didn’t execute.
“It would have been much different if we ended on a three-game winning streak ... this game kind of burst that bubble.”
(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com)