The Buffalo Bill destroyed the New England Patriots in the wild-card round of last season’s NFL playoffs.
Crushed them. Demolished them. Steamrolled them. Eviscerated them.
No verb to describe the 47-17 butt-whooping New England endured last January at Highmark Stadium would be too hyperbolic. Josh Allen and the Bills played a literal perfect game offensively, and a respectable postseason debut from Mac Jones wasn’t nearly enough to keep pace.
The Patriots and Bills will meet this Thursday night at Gillette Stadium for the first time since that one-sided romp. What needs to change for New England to avoid more ignominy this time around?
After last year’s season-ending loss, we spotlighted the seven most significant factors that led to that ugly result. Ahead of this week’s rematch, we took a closer look at each of those pitfalls and whether the 2022 Patriots are better suited to avoid them:
1. Their plan against Josh Allen failed spectacularly
Then: Multiple Patriots players and coaches stressed during the leadup to the playoff game that their No. 1 defensive priority was limiting Allen’s elite rushing and scrambling ability. They didn’t. Allen ran six times for 66 yards and four first downs and used his mobility to neutralize the Patriots’ pass rush (zero sacks, one QB hit). He totaled 130 rushing yards in two wins over the Patriots last season, averaging 7.2 yards per carry.
Now: The Patriots are singing the same tune this week. Every player asked about Allen has quickly mentioned his ability to change the game with his legs. The MVP candidate obviously has rare passing talent, as well (eight touchdowns, no interceptions over these teams’ last two meetings), but neutralizing that other, equally impactful aspect of his game again will be New England’s top objective. Containing mobile QBs has been a struggle for the Patriots, who were gashed by Lamar Jackson in Week 3 and Justin Fields in Week 7. How well their younger, more athletic linebacking corps contains Allen could decide this game.
2. They started slow — and never woke up
Then: The Patriots trailed 14-0 after the first quarter and 27-3 at halftime, continuing a trend established in all of their late-season losses last year. That overwhelming deficit proved too much for Jones and company to overcome, with two late touchdown passes to Kendrick Bourne hardly denting Buffalo’s cushion.
Now: Falling behind my huge margins hasn’t been an issue for the 2022 Patriots. They were down 20 at half in their Week 1 loss to Miami but have been leading or trailing by less than a touchdown in each of their other four defeats. Last week, they instantly responded to an opening-drive Vikings touchdown with one of their own. But the Patriots have not been fast starters, either. That early touchdown against Minnesota was the first they’d scored in the first quarter all season. They rank 29th in the NFL in first-quarter scoring (2.3 points per game), ahead of only the Indianapolis Colts, Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans. The Bills are second (6.5), trailing only the Seattle Seahawks.
3. They couldn’t stop the run
Then: It wasn’t just Allen who hurt the Patriots on the ground. New England allowed 174 rushing yards at a 6.0 yards-per-carry clip and did not record a single tackle for loss. The Patriots’ run defense allowed 170-plus yards in four of their final seven games last season.
Now: The Patriots haven’t been flawless against the run this season — the games against Jackson and Fields were rough ones — but they’ve been solid overall. They limited Nick Chubb in Week 6 (12 carries, 56 yards) and Dalvin Cook last Thursday (22 carries, 42 yards) and enter this week ranked in the top 10 in rushing yards allowed per game (ninth), yards allowed per carry (10th) and Football Outsiders’ rush defense DVOA (seventh). The Bills rank highly in conventional rushing metrics (eighth in yards per game, second in yards per carry) but much lower in advanced stats like DVOA (17th) and expected points added per play (26th).
4. They were awful on third down
Then: The Bills often bypassed third down entirely as they rampaged through the Patriots’ defense, but they were perfect in all of their meaningful third-down situations. They were 6-for-7 overall, but that included an end-of-game kneeldown. The Patriots were a respectable 7-for-14 on third down but faced third-and-6 or longer eight times and third-and-10 or longer four times.
Now: New England’s third-down defense generally has been stout this season, ranking tied for 10th in the NFL. But this Bills offense — ranked second in third-down conversion rate — will test that unit in ways few of its earlier opponents could. The Patriots’ offense, meanwhile, has struggled mightily in gotta-have-it situations, ranking a dismal 25th on third down. They’re also 31st in red-zone touchdown rate. Jones said the Patriots badly need improvement in both of those areas. The Bills’ defense has been very good in the red zone (fourth) but mediocre on third down (tied for 18th).
5. Buffalo dominated their cornerbacks
Then: It’s important to remember what the Patriots’ cornerback group looked like the last time these teams played. With Jalen Mills and reserve Shaun Wade unavailable after testing positive for COVID-19 and Jonathan Jones on injured reserve, New England rolled out J.C. Jackson, Joejuan Williams, Myles Bryant, Justin Bethel, D’Angelo Ross and De’Vante Bausby against one of the league’s most prolific passing attacks. The Patriots were forced to start Williams — and give him 41 defensive snaps — just two weeks after making him a healthy scratch. Every one of those players struggled, including Pro Bowler Jackson, and New England’s safeties weren’t any better.
Now: This might be the biggest and most important difference between these two matchups. The Patriots no longer have Jackson, who left for a big-money contract in free agency, but they’re much, much, much deeper at corner than they were last January with Jones and Mills starting on the outside, Bryant manning the slot and rookies Jack Jones and Marcus Jones contributing in rotational roles. Can this new group stop Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis and Isaiah McKenzie? We’ll see. They were just torched by Vikings star Justin Jefferson, and the Diggs/Davis combo is one of the NFL’s best. Bryant also would like to forget his one-sided meetings with McKenzie last season. But the Patriots at least are much better equipped to combat that group than they were a year ago.
6. Their pass rush was nonexistent
Then: We mentioned the Patriots’ woeful pass rush numbers earlier: no sacks, one QB hit. Allen had all day to throw, and he used it to toss five touchdown passes and average 12.3 yards per attempt.
Now: The Patriots’ pass rush still flows through Matthew Judon, whose late-season nosedive last year pulled New England’s entire defense down with him. It remains to be seen whether Judon, the NFL’s current sack leader with 13, can deliver a stronger finish this time, but the Patriots do boast a deeper stable of viable pass rusher, even with Christian Barmore still on IR. The emergence of Deatrich Wise (6 1/2 sacks this season) and Josh Uche (five, all in the last four games) have taken some pressure off Judon and given New England a more well-rounded front seven. Rush-lane integrity will be crucial for those players against a QB with Allen’s skill set.
Then: Mac Jones was far from the Patriots’ biggest problem in the playoff loss, but he did throw two costly interceptions, one on New England’s opening drive and another on the first drive after halftime. The Patriots were 1-6 last season when Jones committed multiple turnovers and 8-0 when he was turnover-free. New England’s defense also failed to record any takeaways, with the Bills scoring touchdowns on all of their non-kneeldown possessions.
Now: Turnovers were a major issue for Jones early in his second season. He threw at least one interception in each of his first five games and seven total during that span, ranking last in the NFL in interception rate at the end of October. He’s been much cleaner in that area of late, though, with no interceptions or lost fumbles in his last three outings. This also is a matchup that could favor the Patriots’ ball-hawking defense, which ranks fourth in the NFL in interceptions, third in interception rate and tied for fifth in total takeaways. Allen, as great as he is, has been careless with the ball this season, throwing an NFL-high 11 picks and seven in his last five games.