Orchard Park, NY – The Patriots’ season came to an end with a 47-17 beat down at the hands of the Buffalo Bills on Saturday night at Highmark Stadium. 

For fans that are either new to the experience or haven’t felt like this in decades, welcome to reality in the NFL, where Rome wasn’t built in a day, and there’s constant uncertainty about the future.

The Pats made the playoffs in Mac Jones’s rookie season and improved their roster. Fellow 2021 draftees Christian Barmore and Rhamondre Stevenson are hits, Hunter Henry, Kendrick Bourne, and Jalen Mills filled roles, while Matthew Judon is better than he showed down the stretch.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture because of how it ended on Saturday night, and let’s not get silly with how we evaluate the team’s direction moving forward. 

Still, something went sour during the bye week, and Buffalo’s romp was the latest example of where the Patriots stand from a roster talent perspective against playoff-caliber teams. 

The on-field product in the Pats’ final five games, including the worst playoff loss and the most points allowed in the Belichick era, needs significant self-evaluation.

You can make excuses about missing pieces or injuries on defense, and there were several, or point to Jones hitting a rookie wall down the stretch, but the Patriots didn’t become this team overnight. 

New England let go of the rope after starting the year 9-4 and were flat-out bad at a time when Belichick harps on playing your best football. 

Effort and energy were issues. Buy-in was an issue, fundamentals, communication, attention to detail, team speed and explosiveness, and most alarming of all, coaching, was an issue. 

As we work the information that trickles out from an admittedly tight-lipped organization, there will hopefully be some explanations for why and how the 2021 Patriots collapsed. 

But make no mistake about it, this organization is still at a crossroads. If you’re looking for someone to hold you and tell you everything will be alright, there’s nothing guaranteed when you’re just like every other NFL team.

Here are ten things we learned as the Pats’ season ends in Buffalo:

1. Bills QB Josh Allen is a Long-Term Problem for the Patriots

Even assuming the Patriots improve, New England is staring at an absolute problem in their division for years to come with Josh Allen. 

You can dog Joejuan Williams for losing a foot race with Gabriel Davis all you want, but this is a disturbing throw by Allen for Pats fans to watch if you have dreams about them taking back the division sometime soon. It’s a good contained rush with a collapsing pocket where Allen resets to his left and hits Davis crossing away from him on an absolute bullet. 

Here, the Pats have everyone covered for an eternity with eight in coverage, but Allen doesn’t force the issue, waits to pounce, and somehow finds Dawson Knox in the back of the end zone. 

When the Patriots ran man-blitz schemes, Allen torched them with his legs on scramble plays.

Excluding kneel-down drives, the Patriots’ defense went 14 consecutive drives without forcing Allen and the Bills offense to punt in their last two games against Buffalo. 

Belichick tried disguising coverage, bringing pressure, man, zone, several different pass-rush schemes without blitzing, and Allen torched everything he threw at him. 

Buffalo has an elite 25-year-old quarterback who isn’t going anywhere. Get used to it, Pats fans. 

2. Pats QB Mac Jones Isn’t a Problem and Needs More Help 

Although he’ll probably get unwarranted criticism for the loss, Mac Jones came to play and was one of the few Pats that wanted to compete in this one.

Mac was locked in on the Patriots’ opening drive and leading an answer to Buffalo’s offense. After Jerry Hughes spun around Trent Brown on an inside move, Jones broke Hughes’ sack attempt and found Hunter Henry crossing behind Buffalo’s zone structure for a 30-yard gain. 

On the very next throw, Mac hit a wide-open Brandon Bolden in the hands with a deep pass attempt that was a game-planned shot play by Josh McDaniels that Bolden dropped. 

Then, he threw a catchable deep pass to Nelson Agholor on a double move that Agholor waited to fall in his lap rather than attacking it in the air, and Micah Hyde picked it off. 

Jones made multiple high-level QB plays on New England’s opening drive, but the rest of his teammates didn’t rise to the occasion with him, and that was the difference. 

3. New England’s Injury/COVID Replacements in the Secondary No Match for Bills 

We knew the Patriots were asking a lot from Joejuan Williams and Myles Bryant to step up in a playoff game against a potent passing attack, but this one wasn’t even close. 

Bryant, whose warts began to show as time wore on, replaced Jonathan Jones in the Pats’ secondary and excelled in New England’s seven-game winning streak as a zone defender. 

However, the issues in man were masked for Bryant until the coaching staff asked him to take Bills wideout Isaiah McKenzie in man coverage. McKenzie broke out in Week 16 against Bryant and exposed him again by running a “burst” out route for 19 yards on second down.

McKenzie beat Bryant on crossing routes in Week 16, so the Bills’ speedy wideout stems like he’s running a crosser and then breaks outside on an out pattern to leave Bryant in the dust. 

As we showed in the Allen section, Williams was out-matched by Gabriel Davis in man coverage and is another failed selection from the top of the 2019 draft class. 

Losing Jones for the season eventually came back to bite them, as did starter Jalen Mills landing on the COVID list this week, but the Pats never had enough depth at cornerback.

4. Pats OC Josh McDaniels Fails to Throw a TE(A) Party All Season

Some might have other nitpicks for Josh McDaniels, and the players share in the blame, mainly Jonnu Smith, but McDaniels’ inability to maximize this duo was a season-long failure. There’s no excuse for paying Smith that contract and giving him one target in the biggest game of the year. They wrongly evaluated the player and didn’t have a clear-cut plan for Smith. But Smith and Henry needed to be much bigger parts of their offense for it to reach its ceiling, and they had a combined one catch in a playoff game. Jonnu might not be the player the front office thought he was, but he was much better than a nothing-burger in Tennessee, and that’s on McDaniels for failing to utilize his skill set. 

5. Pats’ Inability to Separate Against Buffalo’s Pass Defense Again is Telling 

Another telling development in the final two games against Buffalo was the lack of separation from the Patriots’ receivers in man coverage. Before the anti-WR1 crowd comes for me, I’m not a fantasy football guy, and I’m not one of those people that’s obsessed with wide receivers. Still, it’s abundantly clear that the Pats need to acquire a legitimate game-breaking talent to pair with Jones, as Buffalo did for Allen with Stefon Diggs, for this to work. Bourne, Meyers, and Henry are nice complementary weapons. But they need “a dude” who changes the entire complexion of their offense from easy explosives for Jones to how defenses scheme them up. Right now, they’re punching above their weight in terms of the passing games’ pecking order, and the discrepancy in high-end receiving talent is telling every week.

6. What do the Patriots Do With Top CB J.C. Jackson?

The offseason decision on Jackson will be an interesting one to monitor. He’s not a player that they typically pay (see: Malcolm Butler, among others), and he’s going to get PAID. Despite Belichick’s history at the position and with cashing out UDFA finds, the Patriots might not have a choice but to at least franchise tag Jackson, given what’s currently behind him on the depth chart. Sure, you can draft a first-round corner to replace Jackson as CB1. But there’s no clear-cut answer for how their secondary would look without him, and it was pretty up-and-down at points this season, even with a second-team All-Pro nod for Jackson. I foresee a tag coming for Jackson, with the Pats kicking the can down the road to 2023. 

7. Pats LT Justin Herron Wasn’t a Problem Filling in For Isaiah Wynn

The good news is that Herron wasn’t why the Patriots lost, but that’s not a major surprise, given they got blown out in so many other areas. The bigger question is, what does the team do with Wynn, who is due over $10 million on his fifth-year option in 2022? New England might be stuck with Wynn’s contract. But availability, consistency, and focus (penalties) are ongoing issues with the starting left tackle. We’ll see how it looked on the tape before crowning Heron. But Wynn’s days in New England are numbered.

8. Pats Running Game Wasn’t the Factor They Needed to Be 

The Pats needed to control the pace of this game, but they buried themselves in another early deficit, and the rushing attack never took hold. Plus, they weren’t all that dynamic in the running game, with a 33% success rate on their 18 non-QB rush attempts. If you’re built to run the ball and play stingy defense, you better do it well, and the Pats did the opposite. The rest explains itself. 

9. Conservative Belichick Needs to Go Until the Team Improves 

Belichick made three decisions in this game that felt like a win for Buffalo, and two felt like he waved the white flag:

  • Deferring to the second half when you needed a fast start
  • Punting on 4th-and-1 from your own 34 down 14
  • Punting on 4th-and-8 from your own 49 down 20

The last one felt like blouses, and it followed suit to a season where New England was one of the most conservative teams in the NFL. The Patriots need to push the issue and play like underdogs more often.

10. What’s Next for the Patriots Heading Into Offseason?

The Patriots will fly back tonight and have one more post-mortem media availability to wrap up the season on Sunday morning. Then, here are some key off-season dates on the horizon: 

  • February 5: Senior Bowl (we know they’ll be there)
  • March 1-7: NFL Scouting Combine 
  • March 8: deadline to designate franchise or transition tag players (J.C. Jackson)
  • March 14: Free Agency Tampering Period Begins
  • April 28-30: 2022 NFL Draft 

 

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Evan Lazar is the New England Patriots beat reporter for CLNS Media.

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