FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) - The NFL and its fans welcomed back the regular officials with open arms Thursday night.
The New England Patriots are hoping their red-zone offense makes a triumphant return this week, too.
One season after scoring touchdowns on more than 65 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line, the Patriots have converted on just six of their 12 visits this season, a distinct difference for an offense accustomed to ranking among the league's best.
"We want to score every time we get down there," receiver Deion Branch said. "That's our goal to score in the red area. We just got to do a better job of executing our plays."
New England's recent red-zone ineptitude was on full display in its 31-30 loss to the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday. Nursing a six-point lead early in the fourth, quarterback Tom Brady marched the offense 79 yards to the Baltimore 2-yard line before Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 20-yard field goal.
In a 20-18 loss to the Arizona Cardinals two weeks ago, the Patriots entered the red zone just once in the first half, again settling for a Gostkowski field goal.
"That's been a big reason why we've lost these last two games is because we're kicking field goals," Brady said. "If you start scoring touchdowns in those situations, then those are four-point swings every time you have to kick a field goal and I think we kicked whatever it was, three field goals last week.
"It's hard to win if you're not productive in the red area and we have to (be). That's definitely something we have to do a better job of."
It's not going to get any easier Sunday against the Buffalo Bills (2-1) and a revamped defense that has allowed just four touchdowns - two from inside the 20 - in their last two victories over Kansas City and Cleveland.
Sure, the Chiefs and Browns don't exactly boast the perennially potent offensive attack the Patriots (1-2) have put on display in recent years. But an offseason overhaul on the defensive line, anchored by defensive end Mario Williams, is sure to make Brady's task of improving New England's red-zone production much more formidable.
Defensive end Mark Anderson - another key offseason free agent signing who recorded 10 sacks with the Patriots last season - has one of Buffalo's nine sacks this year, which is tied for seventh best in the league.
"It's a big front, it's big linebackers, they can all move, they're athletic and they really count on those front four to get to the quarterback and they do it. It's not like you can stand back there and figure everything out all day," Brady said. "They have some guys that can really rush the passer. Bringing in Mario and Mark obviously added a lot to their defense and they think so as well."
New England also is in the unfamiliar position of staring up at Buffalo in the AFC East. The last time the Patriots found themselves under .500 was following a season-opening loss to the Bills in 2003.
"I think we have to . dig ourselves out of a bit of a hole that we kind of put ourselves into," Brady said. "We're sitting here at 1-2 and looking up at Buffalo and the Jets. It's a big game for us, obviously, in terms of conference and division standings.
"Any time you play a division opponent on the road, it's a big game. We lost up there last year, so we have to go out there and try to play better than we've been playing."
Brady likely is trying to forget last year's uncharacteristic performance. The two-time league MVP tossed four touchdowns, but also threw four interceptions, one that was returned for a touchdown, as the Bills stormed back from a 21-0 second-quarter deficit for a stunning 34-31 win that snapped a 15-game losing streak against the Patriots.
New England was 3 of 5 in the red zone that day, finding the end zone on its first two possessions, but struggled the rest of the way, scoring just one touchdown in the second half.
"We went up there last year, didn't put our best foot forward. Now we've got to make sure that we go out and don't have the same thing occur this year," Branch said. "We know what to expect from those guys. It's going to be a very intense game, hostile environment - same as Baltimore."
Red zone efficiency will play a pivotal role in the Patriots' quest to avoid their first three-game skid since losing four in a row in 2002.
"I think there's always urgency. It's the NFL, you got to make sure you're on top of everything at all times," receiver Wes Welker said. "Especially the situation we're in, we've got to get back to winning and making sure we're doing that and doing the things necessary to make that happen."
Scoring touchdowns in the red zone is atop the list.
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