Six Takeaways From Patriots’ Season-Ending Loss To Bills

The Patriots missed the playoffs for the second time in three years


January 8

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — For the second consecutive year, the Patriots’ season came to an end in front of a frenzied Buffalo crowd.

Special teams blunders and a couple of dazzling Josh Allen touchdown passes doomed New England on in a 35-23 loss the Bills at an emotionally charged Highmark Stadium.

With Miami defeating the New York Jets, Sunday’s result officially eliminated the Patriots from playoff contention. They’ll miss the postseason for the second time in three years and just the fourth time under head coach Bill Belichick.

The Bills, who dedicated the Week 18 game to injured safety Damar Hamlin, locked down the No. 2 seed in the AFC and will host the Dolphins on wild-card weekend.

Here are six at-the-whistle takeaways as the Patriots shift their focus to 2023:

1. Special teams disaster
Nyheim Hines returned not one, but two kickoffs for touchdowns for Buffalo — a rock-bottom performance to cap the Patriots’ worst special teams season in decades.

Hines’ first touchdown came on the opening kickoff, igniting a home crowd that already was buzzing from the Bills’ pregame tribute to injured Hamlin.

His second came midway through the third quarter, just after the Patriots had gotten a 24-yard Nick Folk field goal to take their first lead of the afternoon. Cornerback Myles Bryant had a clear shot to tackle the Bills running back around the 32-yard line but whiffed.

The Patriots were playing without one of their top special teamers in Brenden Schooler, who was inactive with a hip injury, and lost another when DaMarcus Mitchell took a shot to the head in the first half and didn’t return. They’ve also missed Jake Bailey’s big leg on kickoffs ever since he landed on injured reserve in November (and subsequently was suspended this week).

But available personnel aside, this was an inexcusable performance by New England, which entered Week 18 ranked 27th in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ special teams DVOA and 29th in weighted DVOA.

Those already were by far the worst marks of the Bill Belichick era, with the Patriots’ special teams never before finishing lower than 18th and 21st, respectively. Folk also sent a squib kick out of bounds during the fourth quarter, giving the Bills possession at their own 40 in a five-point game.

It’s hard to envision special teams coordinator Cam Achord keeping his job this offseason.

Hines is just the 11th player in NFL history and the first since 2010 to score multiple kick-return touchdowns in the same game.

The Patriots’ lone kicking-game highlight came courtesy of longtime special teams captain Matthew Slater, who blocked a Bills player into a bouncing Patriots punt during what might have been the final game of his NFL career. That savvy play allowed New England to recover the ball, extending a fourth-quarter possession that ended with a Mac Jones interception.

2. Offense wasn’t biggest problem, for once
Deservedly maligned all season, the Patriots’ Matt Patricia-led offense actually looked functional for much of Sunday’s game.

They outgained Buffalo 341-328. Jones threw three touchdown passes, including two to wide receiver DeVante Parker, who caught six passes for 79 yards in his return from a concussion. Rhamondre Stevenson averaged 9.0 yards per carry, though he logged just six attempts. Patricia’s play-calling was on point in the first half, effectively employing more play-action than the Patriots typically utilize. New England converted on its first two red-zone trips against a Bills defense that leads the NFL in red-zone defense. Jakobi Meyers hauled in an acrobatic touchdown catch and had one of the Patriots’ two fourth-down conversions.

But an interception on the opening drive of the second half proved to be one of the game’s most important plays. With the score tied at 14-14, Jones efficiently drove the Patriots 60 yards in 10 plays before firing a pass to Nelson Agholor near the goal line that was picked off by star cornerback Tre’Davious White.

Agholor, who’d played just three offensive snaps to that point, did not make a competitive play on the ball. The big-money wideout closed out the season with zero catches on two targets over his final three games and almost certainly will not be back in 2023.

Jones threw two more interceptions in the fourth quarter, one of which bounced off Damien Harris’ hands. Finding a way to deliver more consistent offensive results needs to be an offseason priority for the Patriots.

3. McCourty goes out (?) with a bang
The Bills drove deep into Patriots territory as time wound down in the first half but came away emptyhanded, thanks in part to New England’s longest-tenured defender.

On third-and-10 from the Patriots’ 15-yard line, Allen faced heavy pressure from Matthew Judon and Christian Barmore and floated a pass that was easily intercepted by safety Devin McCourty.

The red-zone pick allowed the Patriots to head into halftime tied at 14-14. McCourty, who has said he will consider retirement this offseason, also had an end-zone pass breakup earlier in the game and a key fumble recovery later, diving on the ball after Jonathan Jones ripped it out of running back Devin Singletary’s hands.

If this was the final game of McCourty’s illustrious Patriots career, it was a seriously impactful finale.

4. Still can’t stop Diggs
Patriots nemesis Stefon Diggs caught seven passes on 10 targets for 104 yards, including a back-breaking 49-yard touchdown with 8:51 to play. Diggs burned Jonathan Jones, who struggled to keep up with the Bills’ star wideout in both of the teams’ meetings this season.

Allen also threw a 42-yard touchdown to John Brown and 4-yarder to tight end Dawson Knox, another Patriot-killer.

5. 1K for Rhamondre
With an 18-yard run in the second quarter, Stevenson became the first Patriots running back since LeGarrette Blount in 2016 and just the sixth in the Bill Belichick era to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. He finished with 54 for a final season-long total of 1,040.

Stevenson, the Patriots’ offensive MVP this season, totaled 1,461 yards from scrimmage. Only Corey Dillon (1,738 in 2004), Wes Welker (1,599 in ’11) and Randy Moss (1,493 in ’07) have tallied more under Belichick.

6. Missed calls
Officials appeared to miss multiple obvious penalties that would have benefited the Patriots.

Bills defensive tackle Ed Oliver was blatantly offsides on a 6-yard tackle for loss that derailed an early New England drive, and linebacker Matt Milano mugged Damien Harris in the end zone but was not flagged for pass interference. The Patriots had to settle for a field goal two plays later, which allowed Buffalo to steal back the lead on Hines’ second kick-return score.

Officials also popped Hunter Henry for a questionable offensive pass interference penalty that wiped out a fourth-quarter first down.

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Thumbnail photo via Gregory Fisher/USA TODAY Sports Images
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