Saturday’s blowout loss to the Bills gave the Patriots a reality check they were overdue – and that might be a good thing

After Saturday night, it’s plain as day that the division is no longer New England’s purview.

Mac Jones and the Patriots had a rough day in Buffalo. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

From a Patriots perspective, Saturday night’s start looked disappointingly familiar.

The opponent opened with a long touchdown drive. That came followed by a New England turnover, then another enemy strike. Yet again, the Pats played themselves into an early hole, repeating the same pattern they’d stumbled through on the way to wrapping the regular season with losses in three of their last four games.

This time, though, the pattern broke. In those earlier losses, the Patriots soon began to figure things out – at least enough to respond, offer some measure of resistance, and hang around. In each, they reached the final three minutes of regulation time within a touchdown of the lead. 


Saturday night, that response never came. They never resisted, at least not nearly enough to hang in against Buffalo. Forget the final three minutes of play; this time they weren’t within a touchdown of the lead at any point in the final three quarters.

By the end, the scoreboard was staggering. It showed Bills 47, Patriots 17 – which, based on points alone, makes Saturday’s wild-card contest the worst loss of Bill Belichick’s 44-game playoff coaching career.

But, really, getting routed was better than the alternative, because that result laid bare a reality that is now impossible to ignore.

If the Pats had done what they usually do – and put up enough of a fight to keep it interesting in the second half – perhaps in the morning-after post-mortem we’re regretfully reflecting on the ebbs and flows and speculating about how specific plays, or calls, or choices might’ve turned the night. Maybe we could talk ourselves into the idea that this game was there for the Patriots if they’d cleaned up a few things here or there, or executed a little better in a particularly big spot.


After all, we’ve been doing that for weeks, if not months. We did it when this team started 1-3 in September and October. We did it again when they finished 1-3 in December and January. 

But 47-17 doesn’t allow for such conversation. Rather, it forces any and all retrospection to begin from a place of humility, where the red flags can’t be rolled up with the hackneyed pooh-poohing of “a play here” or “a play there.”

No. A 30-point loss is a throat-punching reality check, and it’s one for which the Patriots were long overdue. 

Even back when they were 9-4 and leading the AFC, their record was fraught with fraudulence. The numbers show that New England played one of the NFL’s easiest schedules this season, its ease exacerbated by a strength of victory that finished at .394. Among the 14 playoff teams, only the Eagles’ was lower – and among the 32 teams league-wide, it ranked 27th.

Of the Pats’ 10 wins, six came against teams that will be selecting among the first eight picks in April’s draft. Four came against rookie quarterbacks, and overall the Pats went 7-0 against teams with losing records. That means they were 3-8 against teams that finished north of .500 – with two of those wins stamped by big, bold asterisks. 


One was against a Titans team that was missing Derrick Henry, and ravaged by both injury and illness when it came to Foxborough. The other was against the Bills when the wind blew conventional thinking clear out of Western New York. Those two triumphs also happened to be the only victories in six games the Pats played against playoff teams. 

When characterizing the 2021 Patriots, it’s more accurate to say they were frontrunners than real contenders. When they had the confidence of facing an inferior foe, got off to a good start, forced turnovers, and subsequently parlayed all that into an opportunity to pounce, they were great. They were 9-0 when winning the turnover battle (vs. 1-7 when they didn’t). They were 6-1 when scoring first (vs. 4-7 when they didn’t). They were 7-3 in games decided by more than 10 points (vs. 3-5 when the game was closer).

But that last fact shows some of where the false confidence festered. As they fought their way back in games, and battled, the Patriots were branded as mentally tough. Most thought they’d eventually figure it out and stop being a team that found ways to beat itself.

But 47-17 tells the truth. Their toughness and talent both became overrated as the region sought reason to believe these were still the New England Patriots. That the Patriot Way was alive and well and had survived the transition from Tom Brady. That Bill Belichick still reigned over the AFC East. 


After Saturday night, however, it’s plain as day that the division is no longer New England’s purview. Those who’ve been trying to deny that painful truth might’ve seen Saturday unfolding as something of an emperor-has-no-clothes situation, but only because they’d refused to acknowledge that Belichick has been deposed for more than a year, and the ruling power now belongs to Sean McDermott and Josh Allen – a coach and quarterback combination that doesn’t seem likely to concede it anytime soon.

Particularly to the Patriots.

And maybe that’s the reality that hurts the most coming out of Saturday night. For all the good that the Pats seemed to have done this season, the gap between New England and Buffalo looks like it’s as big as ever.

Allen is a star, and the Patriots have no answer for him. To wit, take the wind game out of the equation, and in 26 full possessions over his last seven halves against New England, Allen has produced 18 touchdowns and four field goals, compared with three punts and one turnover. Two of the punts came with Buffalo leading 31-9 last season; the lone turnover came on downs.

Twice in the past month, he and his weapons have exposed the Patriots’ defense as too slow, too shallow, and too old. The Bills’ ability to do whatever they want should intensify the Pats’ urgency to upgrade their personnel defensively, and, oh by the way, the Bills also had the NFL’s No. 1 pass defense and No. 1 scoring defense this season.


Buffalo is well-built and here to stay – so if this was truly a building year for the Pats, 47-17 prompts legitimate questions about where they’re building toward. Or how close they are to constructing the bridge that will get them where they want to go.

Saturday night doesn’t mean the entire season was not a success. New England handled its business, and neither 10 wins nor a playoff berth should be dismissed or wholly diminished. Those are both indications that there’s promise, and things are moving in the right direction. 

Losing this game, in this fashion, shouldn’t be too serious of a blight against Belichick or his young quarterback, either. It happens. Heck, between their second and third Super Bowls, Bill Walsh and Joe Montana lost three straight playoff games by an aggregate score of 102-30. 

But the final score Saturday tells us there shouldn’t be any confusion, either. Improved as they may be from the bleak future they faced a year ago, the Patriots still have plenty of work to do before they can be expected to make a legitimate playoff run. 

In that sense, it’s good that there was no grit-fueled disillusionment about being one or two plays away from competing for a win on Saturday night – because they’re not one or two players away from truly contending with the Bills, or the rest of the AFC brass. They’re farther away than many have been willing to acknowledge.


And now that can be said as decisively as 47-17.


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