5 takeaways following the Patriots’ eye-opening loss to Buffalo

There are long-term implications, and other takeaways.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is trying to get a point across to an official on the sidelines in the second half.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is trying to get a point across to an official on the sidelines in the second half. –Jim Davis/The Boston Globe

COMMENTARY

Five takeaways from the Bills’ 38-9 obliteration of the Patriots, which ensures that Bill Belichick’s team will finish under .500 for the first time in 20 years …

The gap has become a canyon.

At a minimum, the difference between the Bills and Patriots at season’s end will be five games. And the indication Monday night was that the gap is every bit as big as that disparity suggests — if not bigger.

Buffalo used its annual visit to Gillette Stadium to not only affirm that the AFC East is now their division, but to tell the division’s long-time tyrant that the Bills haven’t just overtaken the Pats, they’ve blown so far past New England that it may be a while before they can realistically attempt to regain their throne.

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It wasn’t so obvious earlier in the season, when the Patriots went to Orchard Park and were a fumble and a few yards away from an upset. Since then, though, the Bills have solidified their status as the best team in the East, and begun to play as consistently well as any team in the conference.

Kansas City will enter the playoffs as the rightful No. 1 seed, but beyond them the Bills may be the team best-equipped to compete for a Super Bowl title in the upcoming postseason — but that’s not what’s scariest from a Patriots’ perspective. They’re not in the playoffs. They needn’t worry about what Buffalo might do in January.

But they should absolutely be concerned with what the trajectory suggests the Bills will be next fall, and beyond. Long before Monday night it became clear that Buffalo has a very good coach in Sean McDermott, a potentially great quarterback in Josh Allen, one of the game’s best receivers (under contract) in Stefon Diggs, and a defense that seems to be improving. They’re talented, and they’re complete.

And to see them juxtaposed against the Patriots just makes the chasm between the two teams all the more painfully obvious for the Pats. Only a couple of Bills drops kept it from becoming a laugher even sooner, and the game simply wasn’t competitive after the middle of the second quarter. One side had everything humming smoothly, while the other slid further into a painful state of disarray.

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One side looked ready to win, while the other looked years from being able to say the same.

Start Stidham against the Jets.

The Patriots opted to start Cam Newton against the Bills, and gave him two and a half quarters. That gave him the opportunity to play six possessions behind center.

In that time, the Patriots managed 14 net passing yards.

Let that sink in for a second. New England gave Newton two and a half quarters. They gave him six possessions. And the quarterback produced only 14 more net passing yards than if he hadn’t played at all.

The backup certainly didn’t do anything to deserve such an opportunity with his own play Monday, nor has he forced the coaching staff’s hand with any of his other relief performances, though the time has come. In fact, it came at least a week ago. Just give Stidham the start against the Jets.

See what he can do with a week of first-team reps and a game plan suited to his strengths. See if he can do anything. See if there’s a spark. See if there’s any value in keeping him around.

It’s possible, and maybe even probable, that Belichick already feels he has those answers based on practice. Fine. He may well know by now. But the reality is that there’s no downside to playing Stidham. The team is out of contention, the season finale is utterly meaningless, and the fact of the matter is that Stidham can’t possibly be worse than Newton.

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For a while, there might’ve been value in taking time to evaluate Newton for next year, too. But, really, what interest will there be in him after this season? Last year there was almost no interest, and the supposition was that he could play. Now there are serious doubts that he can even throw. If the Pats want him next year, it’s more likely he’d come crawling back than that they’d need to outbid another team for him.

In the interest of the rebuild, though, the Patriots would be best served if Monday was Newton’s final game in a New England uniform.

It’s all come off the rails.

It was only 22 days ago that the narrative around the Patriots was relatively promising. They’d just won four of five, the previous two being a tough win over a potential playoff team in the Cardinals, then going across the country to post a shutout victory over the Chargers. They were 6-6, and the conversation included the caveat that they could’ve easily been as good as 8-4 with a clutch play or two along the way.

So it’s incredibly disappointing to realize what’s happened in the three weeks since.

Since beating the Chargers, and pulling themselves back to .500, the Patriots have responded with their three biggest clunkers of the season. They were largely brutal in a need-it game against the Rams. They were putrid, particularly in the second half, when facing elimination at Miami. They came Monday night, when the Bills came to Foxborough and completely obliterated their hosts en route to one of the most-lopsided losses of Belichick’s time in New England.

Long gone is the promise and any sense of justifiable positivity, along with the narrative that this season could’ve been something more than it ultimately became. Based on what’s happened of late, it’s hard to still look back at the losses at Kansas City and against Denver and blame them on Covid and a lack of practice. It’s hard to blame a slow start on an altered training camp and slow build. Now is when Belichick teams are supposed to be clicking, when their hard work is supposed to be paying dividends, and when they’re supposed to be realizing their true ceiling.

Then again, maybe that’s what’s happening.

J.C. Jackson couldn’t back it up.

With Stephon Gilmore out for the season, the responsibility of marking the opponent’s No. 1 receiver fell to cornerback J.C. Jackson. Against the Bills, that meant he covered Diggs.

Early on, Jackson held his own. He limited Diggs in the first quarter-plus, then let the star receiver know about it. After one incompletion the trash talk reached the point that they wound up jawing, with Diggs appearing to be especially animated.

And from there, he owned the matchup. He worked free of Jackson late in the second quarter, catching the ball then scooting the rest of the way for a 50-yard touchdown. On Buffalo’s next possession, Diggs got open just outside the end zone, shook Jackson’s attempted tackle, and carried it over the goal line for touchdown No. 2.

No. 3 of the night came on Jason McCourty, but Diggs’s nine catches and 145 yards were enough to show just how much the Pats missed Gilmore — and what the fallout looks like when they’re without the elite talent who allows everything else to fall into place.

Jackson is a good player. He is certainly worth the Patriots trying to lock up long term, or at least making it punitively hard for another team to try and sign him away this spring. But he’s not a top cornerback on a good time — at least he hasn’t proven that much as of yet — and that has to be remembered when the decision is made about what to pay him, and how to handle things with Gilmore’s next deal.

A tell-tale sign of a No. 1 corner is that they’ve got the confidence to talk a big game, and the skills to back it up. Monday night, Jackson only fit half that bill.

A good night for the running backs

If there was a bright spot for the Patriots, it was the performance of the running backs — even without Damien Harris.

Sony Michel toted it 10 times for 69 yards, running hard and purposefully, and even ripping off a 29-yard gain. JJ Taylor nearly matched that with a 28-yard run, that jaunt helping set up the Patriots’ lone touchdown of the night — and of the last 12 quarters they’ve played. That was scored on a rumbling run by Newton.

All together, the Pats ran for 145 yards, their fifth straight game topping the century mark on the ground. Add in James White’s three catches for 23 yards, and the combination of White, Michel, and Taylor accounted for 144 yards.

The problem is that the rest of the team netted just 57 yards from scrimmage. That brought the team total to 201, which was the third time in five games they failed to surpass 220 total yards, and they’re now averaging less than 239 offensive yards over that span. The bookends in that stretch have been the team’s past two home games, those being an effort with 69 net passing yards against the Cardinals, then Monday, when they netted 56 passing yards against the Bills.

It’s hard to find positives in a 38-9 defeat — but for the backs to run effectively when there’s no legitimate threat of a passing game for foes to concern themselves with, it’s as close as the club can claim to an accomplishment.

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