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7 Keys from Patriots season-ending loss to Buffalo

Here are the key takeaways as the Patriots drop their final game of the 2022 regular season and finish 8-9 on the year, missing the playoffs.

KeysFromTheGame (7)

The Patriots and Bills battled through a competitive back-and-forth affair on Sunday afternoon, with the Bills ultimately pulling away and prevailing on the power of two kickoff return touchdowns that were major game-changing plays. Buffalo closed out a 35-23 win with two long touchdown throws by Josh Allen in the second half, dropping the Patriots to 8-9 and leaving New England on the outside looking in at this year's postseason.

The Patriots got some of their best efforts of recent memory on both offense and defense through much of the contest, with the defense producing multiple takeaways and the offense putting forth one of their more consistent efforts of the year that included some sustained drives against an excellent Bills defense. However, it wasn't enough as the special teams shortcomings and big plays against proved to be too costly.

Here are the key takeaways from a disappointing end to an 8-9 2022 Patriots season.

Bills open the game in epic fashion

With emotions running high after a pregame ceremony honoring Damar Hamlin, the Bills carried that momentum into the opening kickoff with Nyheim Hines taking it 95 yards for a touchdown. It was an incredible moment for the Bills and a terribly unfortunate one for the Patriots who might've been hoping to just endure the start of the game and the highly charged atmosphere that came with it.

Unfortunately, the Patriots kickoff team has struggled mightily this year after the loss of Jake Bailey, as this was the second kickoff return TD they've allowed, while also consistently giving up field quality field position. The first came against Minnesota just after the Patriots had taken a third-quarter lead and allowed Minnesota to regain a tie.

Aside from Marcus Jones' electric return ability, the Patriots special teams have limped down the stretch this year, falling all the way to 27th in Football Outsiders DVOA metric and this play brought those issues to the forefront. Even given the extreme circumstances, it was a deflating start to the game. And it wouldn't be the last time the kickoff return team heard from Hines.

Patriots get on track

Despite allowing a touchdown off the opening kickoff and following that up with a three-and-out on offense, the Patriots got in gear, getting off the field on third down by sacking Josh Allen defensively, then stringing together a nine-play, 74-yard touchdown scoring drive to even the game at 7-7 in the first quarter.

Jakobi Meyers made an outstanding play on the touchdown, getting both feet down to secure the score. New England has had plenty of red zone struggles this season, they're ranked dead last in the league, but with their backs against the wall, Mac Jones and the offense put forth one of their best drives of recent memory.

DeVante Parker chipped in two catches for 28 yards on the drive as he made his presence felt in his return from a concussion. Meyers had a 20-yard reception on third down as well to keep things rolling. It was the only third down the Patriots faced on the drive as they produced well on early downs.

It was a critical counter for the Patriots, as the drive helped offset the energy of the Bills and allowed the game to settle in.

Back and forth in the second quarter

The Bills' 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that gave them a 14-7 lead looked familiar in context with recent Buffalo performances, as New England failed to get a stop on three different third downs. It appeared that Josh Allen was finding a stride but on the following drive the defense turned things around and forced another punt with Daniel Ekuale coming through with a needed sack.

The Patriots offense responded with their second long sustained drive of the half, a second nine-play, 74-yard touchdown drive of their own to tie the game back up. Mac Jones found a rhythm, connecting on all six of his pass attempts, including a 20-yarder to Kendrick Bourne and the touchdown toss to DeVante Parker, as New England went two-for-two in the red zone in the first half.

After spotting Buffalo two different leads, the Patriots continued to hang strong, while also dealing with an ankle injury that knocked Matthew Judon out of the game briefly in the second quarter. The Pats pass rush was the story, when they were able to get to Allen and finish him off, the defense got off the field. When they were a split second late, the Bills QB was making them pay.

The Bills appeared poised to retake the lead before halftime, but a bad pass by Allen on 3rd-and-10 went right to Devin McCourty for an interception to preserve a 14-14 tie at the break.

Meanwhile, despite two three-and-outs, Mac and the Patriots offense had one of their more productive halves of the year with two sustained touchdown drives and limited mistakes.

Trading turnovers in third

The Patriots were putting together a nice drive out of halftime, including a conversion on fourth-and-one that came just past midfield, as New England looked to take their first lead of the game in the third quarter. But the 10-play drive came to an abrupt end with Mac Jones's first interception since the Arizona game and just his second going all the way back to the matchup against the Jets in Week 8.

Mac was having one of his best games of the season until that point, as he matched red zone giveaways with Josh Allen. His recent ball security has been outstanding and a key part in keeping New England competitive, but he missed Nelson Agholor in what was a contested catch situation that was well covered by Tredavious White.

It felt like a tough turning point for New England, but just two plays later, Jonathan Jones forced a fumble deep inside Buffalo territory that Devin McCourty recovered for his second huge play of the game in the previous three defensive plays.

However, the Patriots would fail to convert in the red zone, held to a field goal that still gave New England their first lead midway through the third quarter, 17-14.

Another kickoff return TD!?

It was a brief lead for New England, as Nyheim Hines returned his second kickoff for a touchdown in the contest, this time ripping off a 101-yard return that gave Buffalo back a 21-17 lead. One touchdown return on the opening kickoff of the game was one thing, but allowing a second in a close must-win game like this was catastrophic and easily a headline of the loss.

It was tougher to swallow as the Patriots defense and offense had better efforts than they've shown in recent matchups against the Bills, but were undercut by the two scores allowed on special teams, which were historically a point of advantage for Bill Belichick's teams.

After a Patriots three-and-out, Allen would hit John Brown for a 42-yard touchdown that extended Buffalo's lead before the start of the fourth quarter. Then, after New England closed it to 27-23, Allen hit Stefon Diggs for a 49-yard touchdown on third-and-10, as the big play touchdowns helped close out the Patriots season.

No quit in New England

It appeared the Patriots might fade away after falling behind 28-17, but the offense showed no quit, grinding out another scoring drive that included their second fourth-down conversion of the game.

This time, Mac found DeVante Parker for his second touchdown of the game with two defenders draped all over him. It was another example this season of Parker's unique ability to win on contested catches. It was a missing element while he was out of the lineup but he showed how valuable it can be against the Bills.

Mac and Parker had good games, with Mac having his first three-touchdown day of the season, including a perfect 17-of-17 on three scoring drives. Both players are under contract to return and offer one intriguing element for the offense to build off of in the fall of 2023.

The special teams would then also recover a fumble off of Buffalo's punt returner in the fourth quarter to keep New England's hopes alive, but Mac Jones' aggressive third-down throw to the end zone was deflected and intercepted by Matt Milano to put another nail in the Patriots coffin.

Patriots finish 8-9, will miss playoffs

With the loss, combined with a win by the Dolphins and Steelers, the Patriots will miss the playoffs for the second time in three seasons as they finish the year with an 8-9 record. Miami moves into the final playoff seed in the AFC, as the Patriots also drop to a third-place finish in the AFC East division.

There was a lot going against the Patriots in this Week 18 game, but they still fought hard and turned in one of their most competitive recent efforts against Buffalo. It was a strange twist for it to be the special teams that were responsible for the biggest letdowns in the game.

Still, the reality is that New England has now lost four straight to Buffalo and finish the year looking up at both them and Miami. Those two teams should be heavily on the Patriots' minds as they enter a 2023 offseason where some significant changes will be needed to once again challenge the best teams of the division, conference and league.

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