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Attrition taking its toll on Patriots' aura of invincibility

What price victory when the football gods smite Tom Brady's weapons by the week?

Although still undefeated after Monday night's melee with Rex Ryan's swarming Bills defense, the Patriots are gradually ceding their aura of invincibility to football's callous march toward attrition.

New England's astonishing NFL record of 38 consecutive quarters with a score petered out in the fourth quarter, the inevitable result of an exaggerated manpower shortage.

With Dion Lewis as the game's most dangerous satellite back, Julian Edelman acting as a playmaking safety valve and Danny Amendola coming through consistently in the clutch, Brady toyed with opposing defenses for two months.

Those days are gone.

Lewis went down with a torn ACL in Week 9. Edelman broke a bone in his foot in Week 10. By the end of Week 11, Amendola and No. 3 receiver Aaron Dobson were watching from the sideline with injuries of their own. Brady was left to battle Ryan's chaos-inducing blitzes with a banged-up offensive line and undrafted rookie receiver Chris Harper.

The loss in efficiency and dynamism is tangible. Defenses have already begun stacking the box versus the run and sending two or three defenders at game-wrecking tight end Rob Gronkowski, stifling a once mighty attack.

The majority of Brady's 19 incompletions versus the Bills were voluntary throwaways due to pressure or coverage. Easy throws were few and far between.

After tossing just one interception in his first seven games, Brady has been picked in each of the past three.

Unable to muster a single first down to kill the clock and seal the victory with two minutes remaining, the formerly unstoppable Patriots were forced to punt the ball back to Tyrod Taylor for a chance to tie a hard-fought game. They understand they were lucky to escape with a win.

The Patriots' dynasty has taught Bill Belichick a valuable lesson over the past decade and a half: the first third of the season is a period of experimentation, the middle of the season is about establishing an identity and the final month is the time for a playoff contender to hit its stride as a well-oiled machine.

"It's great to be playing well now, but when I really want to be playing well is at the end of the year," Broncos All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Ware recently told The MMQB's Peter King. "Look at the league. In so many years, the Super Bowl teams are the teams playing best in late December, not now."

The Patriots' formula is off kilter this year, pushing the experimentation phase past Thanksgiving. Fortunately, their scorching streak in September and October has bought them plenty of time to prepare for that late December stretch run.

"We'll have to get creative," Brady said Monday night. "Think of different things."

Belichick and Brady will go back to the drawing board to do what they do better than any coach-quarterback combination in modern NFL history: make the requisite adjustments to suit the personnel on hand.

"At the end of the day, they find ways to win," Ryan conceded after the game. "That's what championship teams do."

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