Patriots

4 takeaways from the Patriots’ loss to the Bills as the AFC playoff race is shaken up

The Bills now control the destiny of the AFC East. And, really, that shouldn’t be a surprise.

Bill Belichick on the sidelines against during the Patriots' game against the Buffalo Bills. Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Four takeaways as the Patriots cede control of the AFC East to the Bills, with Buffalo coming into Gillette Stadium and earning a 33-21 win over Bill Belichick’s team.

This is (still) Buffalo’s division

It’s the Bills who now control the destiny of the AFC East with two weeks to go in the regular season. And, really, that shouldn’t be a surprise.

Maybe we were fooled by Buffalo’s midseason swoon. Maybe we put too much stock in what New England did during that windy Monday-night matchup earlier this month. Maybe we were too quick to say the Bills were damaged by that game when they seemed defensive and snippy in processing their defeat.

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But the Bills were widely considered the division’s best team coming into the season, they were the division’s best team through the first half of the season, and it is becoming clearer and clearer that they’re still the division’s best team as the regular season winds to its conclusion.

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Yes, they got run over by the Colts. Then there was the jarring hiccup to Jacksonville that left them with an unsightly loss. And yes, the Pats beat them in upstate New York. But the Bills followed that up by nearly coming all the way back from a three-score deficit at Tampa Bay, then handled their business at Carolina, and subsequently returned the favor to the Patriots on Sunday in Foxborough.

Buffalo entered that rematch with the Pats boasting the second-best scoring defense in the NFL, and the third-best scoring offense. Then they proceeded to hang 33 on a Pats defense that had given up more than 30 points only once this season, and did it without a couple of their top receivers, while seeing one drive die on downs at New England’s goal line.

Josh Allen is the best quarterback in the AFC East. His weapons are the best in the AFC East. Buffalo’s defense is right on par with New England’s as the best in the AFC East. And now, after a brief respite, the Bills are playing like the best team in the AFC East.

After Sunday, there should be little doubt that the division is still their dominion.

Mac played like Cam

Last December, the Bills came to Gillette Stadium and steamrolled the Patriots by a score of 38-9. Not only did that night anoint Buffalo as the team to beat in the division, it may have been the singular moment that best exhibited the ineffectiveness of Cam Newton’s year in a Patriots uniform. He finished the night 5-of-10 for 34 yards, plus a couple of sacks, before getting pulled at halftime in favor of Jarrett Stidham.

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Newton is long gone, and now the Panthers’ problem.

But Newton’s replacement paid homage to him on Sunday afternoon.
From throws flung at the feet of receivers, to tosses sailed uncatchably high, to a number of passes that will only amplify the questions about his arm strength, Mac Jones’ performance on Sunday was downright Newton-esque.

In the end, he finished 14 of 32 for 145 yards, throwing two interceptions without a touchdown. The first pick came off a pass that was deflected into the air, while the second was a desperate heave on New England’s final drive. It was essentially a Hail Mary, but Jones’s long lob didn’t quite make it all the way to the end zone. Newton’s used to do that, too.

Games like this are expected of rookie quarterbacks, and Sunday should do nothing to diminish the enthusiasm that Patriots’ fans and the franchise have for the heir apparent at that position. But in the short term it’s absolutely a sobering reminder of the reality the Patriots are dealing with as they try to wrap up a playoff spot, then presumably try to compete for an AFC championship. There’s a reason no rookie quarterback has ever started in a Super Bowl – let alone won one.

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The Bills’ defense was able to rattle him from the start. Rarely did he look at ease as he surveyed the field, and even rarer were the throws when he stood and delivered confidently. His hallmark to this point in his career has been his accuracy, but that seemed to deteriorate as Buffalo rattled him, and the Bills also did a good job of taking away the screens and short routes that might’ve allowed him to find a rhythm that never materialized.

Buffalo’s defense is good. The Bills deserve credit for what they did to the Patriots on Sunday.

But there’s a reason the Pats moved on from Newton. And any reminder of that dark night 363 days earlier is certainly disconcerting.

Pats were pushed around early

For the second straight week, the Patriots faced a team that appeared to be seeking to make a statement. And for the second straight week, they came out disappointingly slow, and got pushed around early.

This time it didn’t cost them on the scoreboard quite like it did against Indianapolis when they went down by 20 before beginning to rally. But the start of Sunday’s game allowed Buffalo to set the tone, build confidence, and dictate the terms of the contest.

On the Pats’ opening series, Damien Harris was dropped just behind the line of scrimmage. Then a blitz blew up a designed screen so badly that Jones threw the ball directly into the facemask of the oncoming defender. Then, on third down, he was sacked six yards deep.

That resulted in a punt, which was poor, and gave the Bills the ball at their own 39. The most telling play of that series was the second, when Allen slung a pass to Devin Singletary near the sideline. Kyle Dugger was there, positioned to drop the running back or push him out of bounds after gaining only a yard or two. That would’ve left Buffalo facing third and long right off the bat.

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Instead, Singletary dragged Dugger for nine yards. One of New England’s best tacklers and strongest defenders was plainly outmuscled, and the Bills had much more than a first down. They had the start they needed, and 11 plays later Buffalo was in the end zone. En route they picked up a third and seven, then converted on fourth and three for the game’s first score.

The Patriots actually responded — though they continued to tackle poorly, to lose in the trenches, and to get pushed around in the bigger moments. That’s partially reflected in Buffalo finishing 6-for-12 on third down, and 3-for-4 on fourth down. Conversely, the Patriots’ offense went 1-for-10 on third down, and defensively they never forced Buffalo to punt. The only Buffalo sequence that didn’t last at least seven plays were those that drained the clock at the end of each half.

For two months, the Pats were the tougher team every week, and it allowed them to dictate the terms of play. Sunday marked the second time in eight days that they weren’t — and the second time they’ve suffered the consequences.

Protect the ball, beat the Pats

It’s hardly true only of the Patriots, but Sunday further affirmed the reality that New England’s defense isn’t quite so elite when its opponent takes care of the football – as the Bills did Sunday.

Entering Week 16, the Pats had played seven games in which they’d forced at least two turnovers. In those games, they were 6-1 and allowing an average of just 13.2 points per game. (The lone loss was in overtime, to Dallas.)

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Conversely, they’d played seven games in which the opponent had turned it once, or not at all. In those contests, they were 3-4, and the opponent was scoring a full touchdown per game more, up to 19.1 points. Scoring-wise, that’s still pretty good; only three NFL teams entered Sunday allowing less than 20 points a game. Given how much the Pats count on their defense to win games, though, it’s telling that the Pats’ record was sub-.500 when not prompting at least two giveaways, and shorting their opponents at least two possessions.

All that said — one might’ve been enough Sunday, if J.C. Jackson and his typically tremendous hands had just squeezed the errant ball Josh Allen airmailed to Stefon Diggs midway through the fourth quarter. Coming just after the Pats had cut the lead to six, it would’ve put the Patriots in a prime position to take their first lead of the day. It wasn’t a tough one. It hit him in the hands.

He barely had to jump.

But when he couldn’t haul it in, Buffalo wasn’t made to pay for one of the few moments when its ball security lacked. Five minutes and two seconds later that same drive ended in the end zone, as did the hopes of the Patriots who — predictably so, given the season-long trend — weren’t able to overcome their inability to come up with a takeaway.

Quick hits

  • It’s time to peek at the schedule. It shows the Bills finishing with home games against the Falcons and Jets, both of which they’ll be significantly favored to win. Also worth keeping an eye on is the Dolphins, who play at the Saints on Monday, then at the Titans, before hosting the Patriots in the season finale. At 7-7, the Dolphins are just one loss behind New England, and would own any head-to-head tiebreaker with the Pats if they win at Miami on Jan. 9.
  • It would’ve been interesting to see how the game played out had the officials not wiped away a pair of personal fouls that had initially been called against the Bills. The first, when the referees waved off a late-hit call after Jerry Hughes grabbed Jones by the back of his jersey out of bounds, completely changed the complexion of the final minutes of the first half. Jones had scrambled to the Patriots’ 47, so 15 yards would’ve left the Patriots with first down at the Bills’ 38, with 1:22 on the clock. Instead, the Pats not only lost that yardage, but as the call was being explained Trent Brown picked up a taunting penalty in the aftermath. That set them back 30 yards, and cost them any chance of scoring before halftime. That said, Brown can’t be doing that. Likewise, Christian Barmore can’t be jumping offside on fourth and seven, leaving the Bills to get only two yards to convert at another juncture. The Pats were only flagged for three penalties, but in the context of the game those cost them way more than 30 yards.
  • Harris looked fresh after two weeks off, notching his fifth 100-yard game of the season, plus three hard-earned touchdown runs. Conversely, N’Keal Harry’s contribution was a letdown, as he caught only two of the six passes thrown his way despite his increased opportunity with Nelson Agholor in the concussion protocol. The tight ends were also disappointing, with Hunter Henry catching only one of six targets, and Jonnu Smith not drawing a target.

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