The New England Patriots’ Week 13 visit to Buffalo seemed to signal a return to order in the AFC East.
The Bills finally won the division in 2020, breaking a streak of 11 consecutive Patriots crowns, but had been stumbling through their title defense. They lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars in early November. Two weeks later, they were blown out at home by the Indianapolis Colts.
Two weeks after that, with winds gusting near 50 mph on a chilly Monday night in Orchard Park, N.Y., Buffalo lost 14-10 to a New England team employing a game plan from the leather helmet era.
The Patriots passed the ball just three times, the second-fewest by any team since the AFL-NFL merger. They ran it 46 times, piling up 222 rushing yards despite the Bills knowing what was coming on nearly every snap. Defensively, the Patriots largely neutralized Buffalo’s running backs and held Josh Allen to 145 passing yards amid unfavorable throwing conditions.
That punch-you-in-the-mouth performance was viewed as additional evidence that the Bills, whose defense ranked at or near the top of the league in most metrics, were “soft.” And after the game, they had the look of a team that was unraveling, with safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde sparring with reporters and head coach Sean McDermott feeling the need to argue that he was not outcoached by Bill Belichick.
The Bills proceeded to lose to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the following week, rallying from a 24-3 halftime deficit before falling in overtime. The loss dropped McDermott’s club to 7-6 on the season, doubling its loss total from 2020. The Patriots carried a conference-best 9-4 record, a league-long seven-game win streak and a two-game cushion atop the AFC East out of their Week 14 bye. They were being hailed as not just legit Super Bowl contenders, but favorites to come out of the AFC.
Since then, these longtime rivals have been on opposite tracks.
The Bills finally stabilized, closing out the regular season with four consecutive wins to finish 11-6 and surge to their second consecutive division championship.
The Patriots? They imploded. New England heads into the playoffs having dropped three of its final four regular-season games, with the lone victory coming over a COVID-depleted Jacksonville Jaguars team that will be picking first in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Included in that home stretch — which saw New England fall from first to sixth in the AFC — was a Pats-Bills rematch at Gillette Stadium that Buffalo dominated, reaching the red zone on every possession that did not end in a kneeldown and destroying the Patriots on third down. The 33-21 win was arguably the best game of Allen’s career and the worst to date from Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones, who completed just 14 of 32 passes for 145 yards and no touchdowns with two interceptions in the loss.
The Patriots’ three late-season defeats — at Indianapolis, versus Buffalo, at Miami — all followed a similar script: slow starts, bad penalties, turnovers, special teams gaffes, poor crunch-time defense and spirited late-game comebacks that ultimately fell short. New England trailed by double digits in all three contests, and rallied to get within one score in the fourth quarter but failed to pick up the defensive stop it needed. Against the Bills, it was Allen beating the Patriots twice on third-and-10 and once on fourth-and-1 on the drive that produced the game-sealing touchdown.
This late swoon also has featured bad football from two of the Patriots’ most important players: Jones and Pro Bowl edge rusher Matthew Judon.
Jones had turned the ball over multiple times in three of his last four starts, with a pick-six and a lost fumble on the fringe of the red zone in Sunday’s 33-24 loss to the Dolphins — a showing he called “super embarrassing”. During that month-long span, he has six touchdown passes, six turnovers and a 59.9% completion rate that’s eight points lower than his season-long average.
The Patriots don’t need their first-year signal-caller to carry their run-focused offense, but they need him to be better than this. New England has struggled to overcome Jones’ mistakes this season, going 1-5 when he commits multiple turnovers and 9-2 when he does not.
Judon, meanwhile, tied the Belichick-era franchise record for sacks (12 1/2) during the first Bills game but doesn’t have an official sack or QB hit since. Sunday’s loss in Miami was one of his worst outings as a Patriot, featuring multiple blown containments (though he appeared to be held on one) and a roughing the passer penalty.
The Patriots and Bills — who were solid but unspectacular in December/January wins over the Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets — will meet for a third time this Saturday night, with New England traveling back to Highmark Stadium in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs. The Patriots clearly are capable of winning in Buffalo, and the weather — bitterly cold with the potential for sub-zero wind chills — again should favor their ground-based attack.
But if they perform the way they have since their last visit to western New York, their postseason will end swiftly.