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A frightening new reality might be emerging for the Patriots and their fans: they’re clearly no longer the class of the AFC East. The Buffalo Bills are.
Led by superstar quarterback Josh Allen, the Bills served up one of the most humiliating losses the Patriots have ever experienced under Bill Belichick, undressing them on national television on wild-card weekend in a 47-17 romp.
There are certainly more granular ways to look at New England’s season-ending loss, but there’s also a very simple explanation for what happened on Saturday night: the Bills were the better football team by far, and they played as if every fiber of their collective being was bent on proving it to a team that has too often stood in their way.
With Allen leading the way, the Patriots might be about to find out what that’s like in the worst way. And though Mac Jones offered plenty of reasons to feel good about his rookie season, Saturday’s game brought the differences between him and his counterpart into terrifyingly stark contrast.
The last time the Bill Belichick-coached Patriots lost by this much in the postseason was, well, never.
The last time one of his defenses gave up this many points? Also never.
The Bills had: 482 yards of total offense, 29 first downs, seven possessions with a touchdown, and six third-down conversions on seven tries. (The only reason they didn’t score on every possession or convert every third down is that Buffalo knelt out the clock to end the game.)
Allen had more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (four) and added 66 yards on the ground.
Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll kept New England’s defense off-balance with a nice mix of plays, several new wrinkles to what he employed in Week 16 against the Patriots and a strong run-pass balance involving Allen, Devin Singletary (81 yards rushing), and speedy Isaiah McKenzie (29 yards rushing).
On the other side, the Bills picked Jones twice and held New England to 89 yards rushing, with 18 of those coming on scrambles by Jones.
But this wasn’t just about the numbers. You could see it on the field.
Offensively, the Bills’ offensive line manhandled the Patriots up front, not allowing a sack or a tackle for loss. Allen surgically dissected the Patriots’ coverage, checking the ball down or extending plays with his feet when nothing was available and then ruthlessly exploiting mismatches and mistakes. He was in complete control, and nothing the Belichicks’ defense dialed up fazed him.
On the other side, the Bills flew around on defense and special teams and hit every New England ball carrier like an oncoming train and created turnovers with exceptional efforts.
Coming into the game, the question essentially came down to whether or not Belichick and his coaching staff could find a way to overcome Buffalo’s clear talent advantage with great game-planning.
But even the greatest game-plan ever devised can fail if: 1. your opponent is simply better than you, or 2. you don’t show up to play. When both of those things are true, this is what you get.
Let’s start by pointing out the obviously needed context here: Mac Jones just finished up his rookie season and first-ever postseason start while Josh Allen is a fourth-year quarterback who has had an MVP-caliber season and played in an AFC Championship. Comparing their careers at this point is a largely pointless exercise.
But here’s the truth: Allen was not only the best player on the field Saturday night but also happens to be one of the best in the NFL. He does things on the gridiron maybe two other players can do if we’re going to be charitable (let’s say Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes), and he elevates his team to the level of a true Super Bowl contender.
Jones is very, very far away from that.
While Allen can make the difficult look simple as his mental game catches up to his bazooka arm and absurd athleticism for the quarterback position, Jones, by contrast, simply doesn’t have the same margin for error.
His first interception wasn’t even a bad throw in terms of accuracy or placement (though both could’ve been a bit better). He just can’t put that football on a line the way a guy like Allen can — and did later on his touchdown to Emmanuel Sanders. The rookie’s second pick wasn’t a bad decision, either. He just didn’t have the arm to zip that ball in past Matt Milano’s hands, and he paid the price.
Once the Patriots were forced to turn to the pass all game, they had no chance both because playmakers let Jones down and because he just can’t mentally or physically shoulder that burden yet.
Know that Jones will get stronger this offseason and perhaps come into the 2022 season with an improved arm and perhaps mobility as well. He also clearly showed a more immediate acuity for the mental side of things than his fellow rookie quarterbacks, which allowed him to help more than hurt in his first year as a starter.
But know this, too: Jones’s game has limits, and his ceiling very likely will never come within bowshot of Allen’s. That’s why teams go for the likes of a Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, or Trey Lance in the draft (all things being relatively equal) over a more traditional pocket passer like Jones: if you can get past the early struggles (which Allen definitely had) and mold the raw materials, that’s the kind of player you can get.
Jones can certainly even the odds to an extent by staying one step ahead of the game mentally and beating teams with accuracy and quick decisions. But sometimes, there’s a point when that’s just not enough, whether because the best-laid plans go awry or because the guy on the other sideline is more talented in addition to being just as smart.
That second part is what the Patriots and Jones are facing with Allen. It could be like that for a long time.
It’s not exactly “back-to-the-drawing-board” time in New England after this loss. After all, they made the playoffs in what might have been more of a bridge year and did so with a rookie quarterback.
But some much-needed reflection, and possibly profound change, are still on the horizon.
Though the Patriots hit on a few free-agent signings like Kendrick Bourne, Jalen Mills, and Matthew Judon (despite his recent disappearance), they didn’t get anything out of Nelson Agholor (one catch for 18 yards on Saturday) and Jonnu Smith this season. Either the Patriots need to make a concerted effort to change that next season, or they need to try and deal one (or both) of them and find replacements in free agency or the draft.
They also have a number of veterans on one-year contracts to consider.
Trent Brown was good when he played, but his issues with availability make it less likely he’ll return on another deal. Who replaces him at right tackle? Michael Onwenu? Someone else? Do they re-sign Ted Karras after his solid season or let him walk again?
Is Kyle Van Noy, who quietly played well, worth bringing back? Does Lawrence Guy offer enough at this point to keep around? Is this it for Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater, and maybe even Dont’a Hightower?
Despite not having a good game against the Bills, newly minted second-team All-Pro J.C. Jackson is in line for some serious cash this offseason. Can the Patriots afford not to pay him seeing how bad the cornerback room would look without him?
Then, there are the more subtle questions relating to the coaching staff.
Linebackers coach Jerod Mayo is a rising star as a coaching candidate and might have a real shot for the Denver Broncos or Houston Texans jobs. Josh McDaniels hasn’t gotten much love as a coaching candidate at the moment, but one wonders if the chance to work with a more physically talented quarterback, like Lawrence or Fields, could entice him to leave New England if an offer came along. If that were to happen at any point — not just this year — how does it affect Mac Jones’s development?
Belichick-coached teams aren’t famous for resting on their laurels even when they win Super Bowls. Things definitely won’t remain the same for a team that barely dipped its toe into the playoff pool before getting sent home.
On two occasions Saturday, Jones had a surefire touchdown clang off the hands of a receiver he had trusted all season (not that either play would’ve altered the outcome of the game).
The first time, he threw a ball slightly behind Jakobi Meyers that the receiver nonetheless could have caught for a score. It clanged off his hands.
The second came on the Patriots’ final possession as Jones threw low to a wide-open Hunter Henry in the front corner of the end zone. Henry reached down to haul it in but couldn’t, falling over in a comically embarrassing way that felt emblematic of the ball game somehow.
On both of the fourth downs that ensued, Jones instead looked for Bourne, who was just about the only receiver to make a play for him all day, and the first-year Patriot delivered.
Bourne’s development as a key play-maker has come as a pleasant surprise this season after he struggled to learn the playbook early on. His ability to make contested grabs, as he did on his second touchdown, as well as his strong running ability after the catch or on handoffs, became an invaluable weapon both during the team’s best offensive stretches and slumps.
Most importantly, he just showed up to play and brought the same energy to the game he always seems to bring, and that was in short supply on Saturday.
The Patriots do need to make sure they’re not going into next season with Bourne and Meyers as their best receivers again, or the offense could struggle once more. But you could do a lot worse than playing Bourne opposite a real No. 1 receiver and Meyers making plays in the slot.
Whatever happens, Bourne has exceeded expectations so far with New England and will be a solid piece to build on next season.
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