For the second game in a row, the Patriots fell into a double-digit hole and were unable to ever get control against the Buffalo Bills, who rode a 10-point halftime lead to a 33-21 victory that drops the Patriots from the top of the AFC East with their second-straight loss.
New England had trouble slowing down the Bills offense all game long, while the Patriots offense struggled to find any early consistency moving the ball in a continuation from their loss to the Colts. As always, New England hung in and fought until the end, putting up two second-half touchdowns, but just couldn't close the gap as Buffalo dominated time of possession and never punted in the game.
With two games to go and their division titles hopes taking a severe blow with the loss, New England has two games left to clinch a postseason berth.
Here are the key takeaways from the most significant loss of the season for the Pats.
Bills come out strong
The Bills got an ideal start to the game, deferring the opening kick then forcing the Patriots offense backward on their opening possession of the game, with a third-down sack of Mac Jones forcing a punt. Buffalo appeared ready to play aggressively in this one, sending early pressure at the Patriots offense.
The Bills offense then took the ball 61 yards in 13 plays for a touchdown on a drive that lasted almost seven minutes. The Patriots defense would stiffen in the red zone, forcing the Bills to go for it on fourth down from the two-yard-line and Josh Allen would find Isaiah McKenzie late in the down for the touchdown as the Patriots pass rush couldn't get home and appeared to be expecting Allen to scramble with seven defenders in coverage.
Buffalo would keep humming on their second possession as well, matriculating the ball down the field with little resistance from the Patriots until the red zone, where Adrian Phillips' third-down pass defense prevented a touchdown and forced the Bills to settle for a field goal. It was the only third down the Bills faced on the drive as the Pats struggled to get early down positive plays.
Their early offensive dominance would carry through much of the game as the Patriots defense struggled to force any negative plays out of Allen and Bills. Despite missing weapons and numerous injuries, Buffalo's offense had little trouble moving the ball all afternoon.
Pats offense grinds
After a three-and-out to start the game, the Patriots offense responded with a tough 13-play touchdown-scoring drive of their own but it wasn't easy, as the offense converted two fourth-and-one plays on the drive while also overcoming a holding penalty that backed them up 10 yards.
It wasn't an overall great start for the Pats overall, but the offense leaned on Damien Harris and were rewarded despite not converting either of their third downs on the second drive. Harris capped off the drive with an impressive 16-yard touchdown run that was well designed.
However, things didn't get much easier in the first half, with Jones throwing a deflected interception on the Patriots' third drive that set the Bills up on New England's side of the field. Luckily, the defense would step up and get a fourth-down stop from the two to prevent Buffalo's 10-7 lead from growing at that point, but they'd allow another score after Jones and the Patriots struggled to move the ball from deep in their own territory.
In the third quarter, the Pats offense would get back on track, piecing together a 14-play scoring drive that included a big 31-yard run by Damien Harris that got things started and two key fourth-down conversions. They'd carry that momentum into the next drive, scoring another touchdown.
Once again, the Patriots offense woke up late in the game but could not get over the hump after a slow overall start from the team.
All about 4th down
Fourth down played a huge role in this game, with the Bills scoring their first touchdown of the game on fourth down, then the Patriots converting two fourth downs on their first scoring drive. Those just set the stage for the rest of the contest.
The Pats defense would get a fourth-down goal-line stop in the second quarter, but after getting the ball right back the Bills would again go for a fourth down, which was aided by Christian Barmore's encroachment penalty that took it from seven yards to two. The Bills would pick up that first down and then get into the end zone again to extend the lead to 17-7 before the half.
The Patriots would go for and get two more fourth downs in the third quarter as they tried to keep pace, eyeing a 20-7 hole. The conversions would lead to the Patriots' second score of the game that closed the gap to 20-14.
But the biggest fourth down of the game would come in the fourth quarter, with the Bills needing just one yard to keep their drive going inside Patriots territory as they clung to five-point lead. Josh Allen kept it himself, faked the handoff and rolled to his left, easily converting.
For the game, the Patriots went 5-of-6 on fourth down, with two attempts coming on the final desperation drive, while the Bills went 3-of-4 with a touchdown.
Defense can't get the last stop
There wasn't much for the Patriots to hang their hat on in this game in their second-straight week of being unable to play the kind of clean and complementary game that sparked them to so many of their nine wins this season. Traditionally the Patriots have played their best football after Thanksgiving, but that has not been the case of late, with turnovers, penalties and mental errors littering their performance.
Even after the offense closed it to a 20-14 game, the defense could not force their first punt of the game, allowing a nine-play, 66-yard touchdown scoring drive. Then, after the offense responded with another touchdown to make it one-score game again at 26-21 with over seven minutes left to play, the defense again allowed a long touchdown drive by the Bills that closed the game out.
These were the latest and most impactful examples this season of the defense being unable to step up in the biggest moments when the team needed a stop.
Patriots are now 9-6
With New England's second-straight loss they fall to 9-6 on the season and have been overtaken by the Bills atop the AFC East. After reeling off seven-straight wins prior to their bye week, the Patriots were atop both the conference and division but now find themselves among the wild card teams that will be jockeying for position over the final two weeks.
New England will need to win their last two games and get help from a Buffalo home loss to either the Falcons or Jets to have any remaining shot at winning the division. Otherwise, they can plan to be on the road once they do punch their postseason ticket.
The Patriots will host the Jacksonville Jaguars next Sunday at 1pm as they look to get their season back on track and seal up a playoff spot.