The Patriots opened Sunday's game with a kickoff return touchdown but followed it with four first-half giveaways that helped the Bills build enough of a lead to hang on for a 27-21 victory. The loss dropped New England to 4-12 on the 2023 season, with Bailey Zappe throwing three first-half interceptions that were offset partly by some stout red-zone play by the Patriots defense that kept the game close into the fourth quarter.
Eventually, Josh Allen and Buffalo's offense found their stride, as they pulled away in the third quarter powered by an impressive 51-yard pass to Dalton Kincaid that set up a needed score, despite New England's feisty defensive effort. The win sets up a showdown for the AFC East title next week in Miami for the Bills, while the Patriots will return home to close out their annual campaign against the Jets.
Here are the key takeaways from the loss.
1. "Special" Start
In last year's season finale, the Patriots endured a nightmare special teams performance, allowing not just the opening kickoff to be returned for a touchdown, but a second kickoff return for TD later in the game. This year the Patriots and Jalen Reagor flipped the script with Reagor's 98-yard kickoff return touchdown to open the game. It was just the boost a team like New England can take advantage of, playing with nothing to lose against a team that needs every win to get into the playoffs and a lot of pressure directly on their shoulders.
The defense carried over the hot start, with Deatrich Wise picking up a sack on Buffalo's first offensive play. That helped New England force a three-and-out on the first possession, handing Bailey Zappe and the offense an early cushion and a chance to build a two-score lead less than two minutes into the game.
The stark contrast to last year's start in Buffalo was striking, as New England got off to the kind of fast start that they always play best with. Unfortunately, the good vibes quickly ended on Zappe's first throw of the game.
2. Give it away, give it away, give it away, give it away...
Recurring themes continued into the Patriots first offensive possession of the game, as Zappe's first intended pass was deflected and intercepted by Bills defensive lineman Ed Oliver, who made an athletic play for a big man. Last week, Zappe was sacked and fumbled on the first offensive play of the game but the defense responded with a four-down red-zone stop that held Denver off the scoreboard. This week, the defense again responded to the giveaway, coming up with a three-and-out that held the Bills to just three points.
That was just the start of New England's major turnover issues in the game.
Zappe and the offense went three-and-out on their second possession, but on the third, the quarterback made an ill-advised throw on a slant to DeVante Parker that was picked off for New England's second interception in their first three possessions. While the first pick was tipped, this one was simply a throw right into Parker's slant route that Rasul Douglas perfectly anticipated. It's a popular route for Parker when he's not running contested fades down the sideline and a play that smart teams have been prepared for.
Four plays later Buffalo punched it in and took a 10-7 lead.
Things got even worse on New England's next offensive play, as Pharaoh Brown got in on the giveaway party, fumbling the ball and handing the Bills the ball for the third time in New England's first four possessions. This time the Patriots defense held strong in the red zone again, holding the Bills to a short field goal that made it 13-7.
Somehow the Patriots turnover problems got even worse in the second quarter when Zappe threw his third interception in five possessions, missing a connection with Jalen Reagor on another excellent play by Bills cornerback Rasul Douglas, who made an acrobatic play on the ball. Douglas played a part in three of his team's whopping four takeaways and ran this one back for a touchdown as Buffalo extended their lead to 20-7 early in the second quarter.
Turnovers were one of the Patriots biggest overall issues earlier this season and after going four straight games with just one turnover, the problems came back in overwhelming fashion. But thanks to the defense, the game remained close.
3. Patriots turn the tide
After the dreadful start, Zappe and the Patriots offense got the spark they needed with Kevin Harris taking a screen pass for 48 yards to finally flip the squad's field position. One play after Harris' scamper, Zappe tucked the ball and scrambled 17 yards for the team's second score of the game, with those four giveaways sandwiched in between the Patriots touchdowns. It was a critical drive that prevented Buffalo from running away with the game. Thanks to multiple defensive red zone stops and how well New England challenged the Buffalo passing attack, the game remained just a one-score deficit.
Newcomer Alex Austin continued to give the Patriots newfound momentum, picking off Josh Allen for the fourth total interception of the game. Allen took a shot downfield, looking for tight end Dalton Kincaid but Kincaid was well covered and the pass fell short, enabling Austin to make the play. Austin arrived late in the season as the team's cornerback depth has been hit hard by injuries. Last week he almost picked off Russell Wilson and this week, against Allen and his former team, he didn't let the opportunity pass. The rookie is one player making a late push to be a part of the 2024 plan, at least in a role of providing valuable depth at a position that always can use it.
The Pats offense rallied off the takeaway, putting together a 9-play, 60-yard drive but Chad Ryland missed a 47-yard field goal to cap it off, his ninth miss of the season and a deflating follow-up to his game-winner in Denver. That's the most field goal misses in the NFL this season.
The game was 20-14 at halftime.
4. Bills take charge
After a turnover-laden and surprisingly close first half, the Bills came out firing in the third quarter, overcoming a first-down run that was stopped behind the line of scrimmage for two big plays, including a 51-yarder to Dalton Kincaid that set up another Buffalo touchdown. Kyle Dugger was in coverage against Kincaid and was beaten off the line, allowing Allen to lob a well-placed ball to Kincaid for the big gain.
Despite the Patriots stout play against the run, big plays have been a problem that have popped up too consistently against a pass defense that had been shut down for most of the first half.
The score opened up a 13-point lead for Buffalo, 27-14.
5. Pats make it interesting
After the Patriots defense pitched another stop on the Buffalo's offense, Zappe hit on another big play, this one going to Jalen Reagor for 39 yards up the sideline and it set up a critical score that closed the game to 27-21. It was Reagor's second big play of the game after the opening kickoff return for touchdown, and this time it was Ezekiel Elliott finishing things off with a six-yard touchdown run.
DeMario Douglas also contributed with a big play of his own (17 yards) that also had additional yardage piled on after Douglas was hit out of bounds by Jordan Poyer. It was a nice catch-and-run by the rookie, as he wove through the Buffalo defense and contributed the big gain with the game moving into the fourth quarter and its outcome still hanging in doubt.
The pressure mounted on Buffalo with the Patriots defense forcing their sixth punt of the game with under seven minutes to play, down by just six points. But New England failed to put a final drive together and Buffalo put the game away on the ensuing possession with a long drive that included two third-down conversions.
6. Patriots are 4-12
Once again this season, turnovers were the biggest headline from this game, even though the Patriots defense stepped up and held the Bills to field goals on two of them despite being backed up deep inside their own territory. In that regard, the loss and a familiar feel in that self-inflicted mistakes had an outsized impact even with the defense continuing to make life challenging for the opposing offense. In the end, Josh Allen proved to be too much and the quarterback made the game's most important plays in clutch time.
Buffalo will now have the chance to play Miami, who lost to Baltimore, for the AFC East title next weekend. The other AFC East battle will feature the Patriots and Jets in a season-ending contest for pride and draft positioning. In that regard, Arizona's win over the Eagles further complicated the picture at the top of the draft, as the Cardinals now sit with the Patriots and Commanders with four wins on the season, a three-way tie for the second overall pick.
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