Commentary

How do you explain the Patriots’ late-season collapse?

What happened during the bye week? The Patriots fell apart.

Bill Belichick. AP

Not that it’s going to linger to the mythical level of whatever offense Malcolm Butler committed that would have Patriots head coach Bill Belichick willing to surrender a Super Bowl title, but we’re probably always going to wonder what happened during that bye week.

Indeed, the weekend of December 11, 2021, is the line of demarcation in a mostly-enjoyable Patriots season, one that ended in epic fashion during Saturday night’s wild-card playoff game in Buffalo. Ever since the Patriots “broke” the Bills on Monday Night Football, just before the bye in question, Josh Allen and friends have made sure to pour on the comeuppance. Even if the most stubborn Patriots fan had doubted quarterback Josh Allen over the years, he or she had to feel like Timothy Busfield, seeing a bunch of dead baseball players in an Iowa cornfield, after watching Allen’s 300-yard, five touchdown performance Saturday night; Where’d this come from?

Advertisement:

Oh, it’s always been there. New England has just been too busy convincing itself that it’s not letting go of its divisional dynasty to pay any attention.

The Buffalo Bills own the AFC East. That couldn’t have been made more clear than it was this past weekend during the 47-17 loss in Orchard Park, N.Y.

The midseason mirage tried to convince otherwise. After “breaking” the Bills during a cyclone on Dec. 6 for their seventh-straight win, the Patriots were 9-4, in first place in the division, with the No. 1 seed in the AFC to boot. Then came their late bye week and whatever black mojo that came with it.

The logical explanation is that age simply caught up to a statistically-respectable defense that needs another overhaul. This year was less of a bogeymen collapse than it was just breaking down over the stretch. Physical immaturity caught up with 23-year-old Mac Jones, who impressed during his rookie season, but maybe not enough to convince everyone that he’s the long-term answer for the franchise. As we witnessed Saturday night though, it would also be nice if the kid had someone to throw to in order to make those kinds of long-range decisions.

Advertisement:

But those attributes don’t just appear immediately after what was considered a defining win over the Bills. If so, the cliff is even more defined than we give it credit.

The theory that something happened that week isn’t just fodder created by the talky-talks either. Jones alluded to it after the Patriots lost to the Indianapolis Colts coming off the bye.

“The energy was kind of low [at practice],” Jones said after the 27-17 loss, his team’s first since falling to the Cowboys in October. “Maybe like feeling a little sorry for ourselves because we’re coming off the bye and stuff. Not to get into details, but we just didn’t practice well, and that just reflects how we played. And I didn’t practice good, and I know a lot of guys on our team felt the same way. So, we have to come to work every day and just be positive. It’s one game. It’s not the end of the world, but at the same time, we can play with those guys. They played great, but we also just shot ourselves in the foot. So, we just have to move on.”

The results say otherwise, but it seemed to the naked eye that lots of NFL teams struggled coming out of their bye this season. Alas, teams were 18-14 after their week off in 2021, but a few of the high-profile teams that lost (New England, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles Rams) perhaps fuzzies the perception. But no team in contention collapsed to the degree that the Patriots did after their bye week. The Patriots also had a shorter bye week than everybody else, playing on a Monday night before and Saturday night after. Is this the “feeling sorry for ourselves” that Jones alluded to during his remarks?

Advertisement:

If that’s the case, we mislabeled this team the entirety of the season. The 2001 Patriots? Please. If we’re going to compare them to any team it might as well be the chicken-and-beer Red Sox. They aren’t who we thought they were.

After the Patriots “broke” the Bills, Buffalo looked like it was going down in a rout the next week in Tampa Bay. But instead of letting the month torpedo their season, the Bills battled back in the second half of that game and figured something out en route to a six-point loss against the defending Super Bowl champs. Buffalo has been on a roll ever since, one that looks talented and relentless enough to be standing alone in Los Angeles next month.

When the Patriots tried to right their own ship, they did it against the COVID-ravaged, worst team in football. It didn’t stick.

“There’s a lot going on obviously when you deal with adversity,” Patriots captain Matthew Slater said after losing to the Bills in Foxborough last month. “You want to make sure that there’s no splinter in what you’re doing; no splinter in the locker room, no splinter between the players and the coaches.

“We have some choices here. One of the choices is to let this spiral out of control and the other choice is to try to put our feet in the ground, make a stand and fight.”

Advertisement:

The Patriots chose Option 1.

What happened during the bye week? The Patriots fell apart.

That says a lot more about them than whatever success they had over a seven-game winning streak. We’re all just suckers who went along for the desired ride.

There’s a lot to feel good about with the 2021 Patriots, especially how the team rebounded from a dreadful 2020. Still though, for all the praise heaped on Bill for what he managed in the draft and free agency, this team still only had three more wins, with one more scheduled opportunity, than Cam Newton’s Patriots.

In other words, we probably should have seen it coming, but were too hungry for the fairy tale comeback.

December 11-13 might be the weekend that killed the 2021 Patriots, or it just might be the weekend when realties started to surface. Either way, whatever happened to derail the team is always going to be in question. The character exposure that week took a turn, returning the pumpkin after midnight.

Turns out the Patriots weren’t underdogs. They were just dogs.

Woof.

Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com