Is Sunday a must-win for Pats?

Some questions you just don't expect to ask in September. But could Sunday possibly be a must-win game for the New England Patriots?

Just three games into the season, that may be premature. After all, this is the same team that some were projecting to go 15-1 or 16-0. Looking at the schedule, it's easy to foresee the Patriots as favored in each of their remaining 13 games.

But it's that disparity between expectations and reality that should give pause.

At 1-2, the Patriots are in unfamiliar territory. Below .500 for the first time since starting 2003 at 0-1, the Patriots will be playing a game with a losing record for the first time in 145 games (an NFL-record streak).

Those numbers, while interesting, are much more about New England's prolonged success than its 2012 struggles.

The Patriots are one win from returning to .500, and the perceived clear path to the postseason.

But what if the Patriots lose to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday?

Would 1-3 make panic acceptable?

The Patriots haven't lost three straight since a four-game losing streak in 2002, a span of 156 games. That's also the last season in which New England failed to win 10 games.

History tells us that 1-3 isn't the end of a team's postseason hopes, but it sure makes it a bit tougher. Of the 150 teams to start 1-3 under the current playoff format, only 22 (or 14.7 percent) made the playoffs.

Of course, the Patriots know better than any team that 1-3 isn't the end. In 2001, the last time New England started 1-3, the Patriots went on to win 10 of 12 on their way to a Super Bowl title.

In other words, the Patriots can certainly recover from a third straight loss. It just wouldn't be easy. Among the 15 seasons in which the Patriots started 1-3 or worse, that's the only one that led to the postseason.

As it now stands, the odds overwhelmingly favor New England to make the playoffs. According to AccuScore's 10,000 simulations of the remainder of the season, the Patriots have an 83 percent chance at reaching the postseason, including a 67 percent chance at the division.

Even at 1-3, AccuScore puts New England's postseason chances at 77 percent.

In other words, the Patriots are still receiving the same respect as when they entered 2012.

Despite the losing record, it's hard to find blatant flaws. Sure, the pass rush seems to be on hiatus. The Patriots last had three sacks through three games in 1996. On offense, the running game hasn't sustained the Week 1 dominance and Rob Gronkowski has fallen short of complete domination. But beyond nitpicks, there's little reason to panic.

The biggest early complaint about the 2012 Patriots is that they can't seem to win the close games.

For just the second time in franchise history, the Patriots have lost back-to-back games by two points or fewer. That also happened in 1999, the year before Bill Belichick arrived on the scene. In his 13 seasons in New England, the Patriots are just 3-7 in games decided by two points or fewer.

Could the Patriots be a team that overpowers opponents but loses the close games? Are they, in other words, the opposite of the Baltimore Orioles?

The Patriots are only the seventh team in NFL history with multiple losses by 2 points or fewer in the first three weeks of a season.

It's already the second-most losses of two points or fewer that the Patriots have had in a season (three in 1981).

Scoring differential best exemplifies the challenge in analyzing New England's 1-2 record. Thanks to two close losses and a 21-point win, the Patriots have outscored opponents by 18 points this season. That's the third-best scoring differential in the AFC. Consider that the Bengals are 2-1 despite having been outscored by 18 points.

Much more will be revealed after Sunday, once a quarter of the season is in the books.

For that reason, the Bills are a welcome foe. The Patriots have won 16 of their past 17 games against Buffalo, and Brady is 18-2 in his career against the Bills. Yet the last time the two met in Buffalo, Brady matched a career-high four interceptions and the Bills came back from a 21-0 lead deficit to win 34-31.

Two close losses this early can't destroy the expectations coming into the season. Even three in a row can be overcome.

But eventually the Patriots need to start winning close games and prove that they are the team everyone still assumes them to be.