Patriots Decisively Lost This Key Matchup Vs. Bills In Week 16 Defeat

Isaiah McKenzie vs. Myles Bryant was a big win for Buffalo

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FOXBORO, Mass. — The COVID-related absences of Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis should have hamstrung the Buffalo’s passing game Sunday.

Instead, they set the stage for a breakout game by a seldom-used Bills wideout.

Isaiah McKenzie, a healthy scratch when the Patriots and Bills met three weeks earlier, torched New England’s secondary, catching 11 passes on 12 targets for 125 yards and a touchdown in a 33-21 Buffalo victory at Gillette Stadium.

It was a career-best performance by the 26-year-old slot receiver, who entered the game with just seven total receptions this season and hadn’t tallied more than six catches or 65 yards in any of his first 62 NFL games.

With Beasley and Davis — Buffalo’s top two slot options — both on the reserve/COVID-19 list, McKenzie finished with nearly as many receiving yards as the entire Patriots team (145). Top target Stefon Diggs added seven catches on 13 targets for 85 yards and a touchdown as Josh Allen and the Bills moved the ball at will against a Patriots defense that ranks among the NFL’s best.

Diggs’ solid stat line was unsurprising, even against a Pro Bowl cornerback like J.C. Jackson. He’s one of the league’s premier receivers. This is what he does. But McKenzie’s? Not even the most ardent Bills Mafia devotee could have predicted that.

So, what went wrong? The Patriots employed a mix of man and zone coverage Sunday, so there wasn’t any player shadowing McKenzie on a play-to-play basis. But in simplest terms, he won his matchup against a fellow reserve, Myles Bryant.

Bryant, a 2020 undrafted free agent, took over as the Patriots’ top slot corner when Jonathan Jones suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in October. Overall, he’s played well. He locked down Beasley in these teams’ first meeting (three targets, one catch, 11 yards) and broke up an Allen pass to ice that game. Teammates and coaches love him. But he couldn’t keep up with the speedy McKenzie.

Allen was 5-for-6 for 62 yards when targeting McKenzie with Bryant in man coverage Sunday, with all five completions resulting in first downs. Three of those were third-down conversions, including a pivotal pickup: a 17-yard fourth-quarter completion on third-and-10.

The Patriots trailed 26-21 at the time, having just scored to cut their deficit to five points. McKenzie beat Bryant again for 15 yards one play later, and the Bills marched downfield to punch in a game-sealing touchdown.

McKenzie also separated from Bryant on his lone incompletion but couldn’t make a diving catch.

“It’s just how the game unfolded,” McKenzie told reporters postgame. “We’re always trying to find the mismatch. I wouldn’t say 41 (Bryant) is a bad player. He’s a good player. Today, I was just having a good day.”

McKenzie is best known for his work as a punt and kick returner, and Buffalo made use of his wheels by making Bryant chase him across the field on shallow crossers, dig routes and deep overs. On five of his six targets against Bryant, he received the ball on the opposite side of the hash marks from where he lined up.

Veteran safety Devin McCourty said the Patriots should have adjusted their coverage mid-game to prevent these types of completions. A more active pass rush also could have helped Bryant.

“We’ll have to watch the film, but he obviously had a lot of catches running away from leverage, a lot of over routes,” McCourty said. “We just didn’t do a good enough job on him. He played a good game. Josh Allen made some good throws to him, a couple situations.

“They used him well game-plan-wise, and we didn’t adjust. I felt like I could have made some adjustments on the field that would have helped us that just didn’t get it done.”

Sunday’s loss was a humbling result for the Patriots’ defense, which entered the weekend ranked first in points allowed per game and first in Football Outsiders’ pass defense DVOA. They also rank near the top of the NFL in most passing categories but weren’t able to stop Buffalo’s shorthanded air attack.

Allen went 30-for-47 for 314 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions, plus 64 rushing yards, the best performance by a New England opponent since Dak Prescott in Week 6. The Bills reached the red zone on all seven of their non-kneeldown drives, scored on six of them and became the first team ever to go an entire game against a Bill Belichick-coached Patriots team without punting.

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