Sunday, December 26, 2021

Bills Thrash Patriots 33-21

The Patriots lost a huge game to Buffalo, dropping the home contest 33-21. The loss vaults the Bills to the AFC East lead and drops the Patriots from second to sixth in the AFC playoff race. Next up is a winnable game against Jacksonville at Gillette, and at this point the team needs to get a win to control whether they even make they playoffs.

Two weeks ago the Pats were on top of the world. They rode a victory in Buffalo to the first seed in the AFC, and it all appeared to be in front of them: playoff bye, home games throughout, and an easier path to the Super Bowl. Now sitting with the sixth seed, the question is, how did it all come apart so quickly. The answer is simple and frustrating...

The Patriots have become the team they used to beat with regularity. For two decades they rose to good competition and just played well enough to allow bad teams to beat themselves. Over and over they used that formula to win division titles, get playoff byes, and ride their regular-season success to Super Bowls and championships.

But now it's the *Patriots* who beat themselves. Coaching blunders. Poorly timed penalties. Turnovers. Bad situational play. Special teams gaffes. Dropped passes. Dropped interceptions. Lack of adjustments. Undisciplined players. When it comes to the losing formula, the Patriots seem to have it all.

Here is a quick list of some of those very problems on display this afternoon.

At 10-7 Bills, quarterback Mac Jones threw a nice, easy pass to a wide open N'Keal Harry, who just flat out dropped it. Jones' first interception came on the next play, when the linebacker was standing directly between him and his target. N'Keal, catch the damned ball. And Mac, pull that ball down and then throw it away -- it was only second down.

Late in the first half they had Buffalo facing a fourth-and-seven. But they had been aggressive so there was a chance they'd go for it. So not knowing if they'd be getting the ball back, the Patriots called a timeout to save time -- but Buffalo still had the ball. Huh?

During that timeout, apparently no one told rookie Christian Barmore that the Bills were going to try to draw the Patriot offside to make it fourth-and-two. Barmore bit on the hard count, the penalty was assessed, the Bills got the first down, and then a touchdown.

On the next possession the Pats were driving for a score before the half. But after the referee picked up a late-hit flat, Patriots tackle Trent Brown lost his mind and cost his team 15 yards with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. It would have been second-and-three at their 47, but instead it was second-and-18 at their 32. Two plays later, punt.

7:30 left in the game and the Pats somehow had clawed their way back to within one score. Bills QB Josh Allen floated a pass over his receiver's head and it was right in the hands of corner JC Jackson. Who amazingly dropped the ball. Jackson has more interceptions than anyone since he entered the league, but when they really needed one to get the ball back and score, he dropped it.

(This comes a week after the Patriots dropped two potential interceptions that could have turned the Colts game in their direction. And yes, Jackson had one of those miscues, too.)

All game long the Bills killed New England with short zone passes, and the linebackers continued deep drops or were out of position play after play. And with Josh Allen making hay running from the pocket, there was never an adjustment to run blitz and get the ball out of his hands. In the old days they would have adjusted mid-drive. Now apparently halftime isn't long enough to adjust.

Their kickoffs are all over the map; but there is never a situation where you kick the ball to the 15 yard-line on purpose. But the Pats did just that, and it was returned to the 35. If you want to force a return, you kick it inside the 5, not inside the 20.

There were multiple plays where the Patriots defensive secondary was pointing, yelling, and repositioning players even as the ball was snapped. They were fortunate the Bills didn't rack them on those plays, because several times Buffalo receivers dropped easy passes for big gains.

Lastly, their situational awareness was for crap. One play ended with a late hit by the Bill, but center David Andrews rushed in to jaw it up with the defender -- and got an offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. And the Patriots converted only 1 of 10 third downs, forcing them to go for it on fourth down six times!

It's tough to say what was the worst part of their performance. On offense, Mac Jones missed multiple short receivers, sometimes whiffing on throws to his *outlet* receivers. The receivers dropped some easy passes, and tight end Jonnu Smith had a critical holding call. And veteran running back Brandon Bolden looked lost at times.

On defense, the linebackers couldn't cover anyone in the short zones and didn't tackle well, either. The secondary played too much soft zone. And the pass rushers lost outside and inside contain repeatedly, allowing Allen to run wild.

Only the run defense and offense did well. But without the gale force winds of a few weeks ago, the rest of the team was exposed.

How the Patriots have gotten to this point is another article. However, unless they clean up those type of mistakes, they aren't going anywhere in the playoffs, if they even make it there.

Maybe last year was the salary cap reset, and this year was the roster reset. But they'll have to improve their talent and get rid of players who keep screwing up in little ways. Because all those little gaffes have lead to two straight losses and a season teetering on the brink.

Where does that leave us? The Patriots still have two winnable games down the stretch, next week against Jacksonville and in Miami to finish the regular season. If they run the table, the number crunchers at give them only a 23% chance of the Bills slipping up and giving them the division crown (link).

If they win the division, they'd host at least one, and possibly two playoff games. If not, chances are they'd be on the road for the post-season -- again, assuming they make it.

Biggest on-going concern: Aside from the accumulation of little issues, it's mostly health related. Receiver Nelson Agholor was out with a concussion and running back Rhamondre Stevenson was on the COVID list. Without those two, the skill positions are strained, and the Bills just double-covered the two fave targets and assumed the run wouldn't beat them.

Perhaps the biggest difference in the game yesterday was the play of the backup receivers. N'Keal Harry played in place of Agholor and he had 1 catch (on 6 targets) for 9 yards. Isaiah McKenzie replaced Buffalo's Cole Beasley and he had 11 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown.

Pretty stark comparison.

Non-QB MVP: It was Damien Harris, who ran for 103 yards on 18 carries and scored all three Patriots touchdowns.  He ran tough and smart and also had some nice blitz pickup.

Statistical oddity: Mac Jones has 3 interceptions in the Patriots nine wins this year, and 9 interceptions in their six losses. Time to double-down on throwing it away and living to fight another play.

Water-cooler wisdom: "The sky isn't falling, but my opinion of the Patriots coaching staff is."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 9-6!

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