ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Patriots fought hard Sunday afternoon, largely rising to the occasion amid an emotionally charged environment at Highmark Stadium. They deserve some credit for that.
However, when the dust settled, New England suffered a season-ending 35-23 loss to the Buffalo Bills.
This might’ve been a different game if not for another wretched performance by Patriots special teams. Nyheim Hines took the opening kickoff 96 yards for a score, and, with his team trailing by three in the third quarter, returned another 101 yards for a touchdown.
Outside of those preposterous mess-ups, the Patriots mostly played well. Quarterback Mac Jones enjoyed one of his best games of the season, completing 26 of 40 passes for 243 yards and three touchdowns to go along with one bad interception, which took place in the red zone, and another that came while forcing the issue at the end of the fourth. Jones was picked off for a third time during garbage after Damien Harris dropped a pass.
Kendrick Bourne, DeVante Parker, Hunter Henry and Jakobi Meyers all had strong games, with Parker and Meyers both recording touchdown receptions.
The Patriots finished with 20 first downs and went 4-of-13 on third downs.
On defense, New England certainly allowed Josh Allen and the Bills to move the ball, but it also forced two turnovers and three punts. Buffalo finished the game with 18 first downs while going 7-for-11 on third downs.
Allen completed 19 of 31 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns to go along with one pick. Stefon Diggs caught seven passes for 104 yards and a score while John Brown added a 42-yard touchdown catch.
The Patriots finished their season with an 8-9 record, which is just the second losing record during Bill Belichick’s tenure as head coach. The Bills finished 13-3, good enough for the AFC’s second seed.
Here are three studs and three duds from an entertaining game in Buffalo:
QB Mac Jones
Yes, the interception was a rough play, but it ultimately didn’t matter because the Patriots quickly forced a fumble and wound up with a field goal. The second pick was tipped on a prayer to the end zone. The third one was Harris’ fault.
Jones otherwise was very good in this game, making multiple big throws while showing a ton of toughness. The focus after this game probably will be on his three interceptions, but it shouldn’t be.
WR DeVante Parker
Parker showed out in his first game since Week 14, catching six balls on seven targets for 79 yards and two scores. His injuries came as advertised this season, but so did his ability to come down with 50-50 balls.
This was an excellent play from Jones and Parker:
LB Matthew Judon
Judon didn’t record a sack in this game, but he was a force throughout while battling through an ankle injury. He finished with three tackles, including one for a loss, and factored into both defensive turnovers. Judon’s stats fell off for the second season in a row, but his actual level of play didn’t.
Honorable mentions: Hunter Henry, Rhamondre Stevenson, Kendrick Bourne, Christian Barmore,
Earlier in the week, we broke down why this special teams unit is the worst in the Belichick era. So, it wasn’t remotely surprising when Hines took the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown to send Bills fans into an absolute frenzy. And it also wasn’t a surprise that the Patriots received a pair of rough kick returns from Marcus Jones and also sent a kickoff out of bounds for a penalty.
What was kind of surprising: That Hynes scored another touchdown in the second half. Still, if any special teams group was going to give up two kickoff touchdowns in the biggest game of the season, it was this one. This marked the 11th time one player returned two kickoffs for a touchdown in the same game, and the first time since 2010.
It’s very difficult to envision Cam Achord returning as New England’s special teams coordinator in 2023.
CB Myles Bryant
He deserves his own spot for the egregious missed tackle that allowed Hines’ second return TD to happen.
It probably is unfair to come down too hard on this group, as it was down Jalen Mills and Jack Jones and going up against one of the NFL’s best offenses. However, whenever Buffalo’s passing game needed to make a play, it was able to do so with relative ease, including on Brown’s 42-yard score in the third quarter and Diggs’ 49-yard TD in the fourth. The Patriots must add cornerback help during the offsesaon.
Honorable mentions: Nelson Agholor, Tyquan Thornton, Trent Brown