Orchard Park, NY – The Patriots couldn't overcome four first-half turnovers by the offense in a 27-21 loss to the Bills at Highmark Stadium on Sunday.
For those rooting for #TheTank, Sunday's game was a perfectly competitive loss, where the Patriots showed some resolve to fight through early adversity to stay in it with a likely playoff-bound Bills team. New England's draft pick also received some help from the Cardinals, with Arizona notching its fourth win with an upset victory over the Eagles in Philly.
The Patriots are currently holding the third overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, which might be the biggest story to some. From this perspective, the main takeaway is that New England's defense is finding a formula against Bills star quarterback Josh Allen.
Since he developed into an MVP-caliber player, Allen was 6-1 with 18 touchdowns and only two interceptions against head coach Bill Belichick's defense. After an upset win earlier this year, the Patriots held Allen to a modest +0.02 expected points added with a 38.4 QBR in the second matchup. In the traditional box score, Allen only completed half his passes (15-30) for 169 yards with an interception on Sunday. Allen did not play well in this game, with several errant throws and risky plays leading to a completion percentage over expectation of -6.9.
Allen's play has regressed with Buffalo's issues at offensive coordinator, but the Bills first three scoring drives came off turnovers from deep in Patriots territory. Buffalo's initial scoring drives were four yards, 14 yards, and 24 yards, with only one "real" touchdown drive when Allen hit an explosive play to rookie Dalton Kincaid. Between the short scoring drives and a pick-six, Buffalo scored 20 of its 27 points off turnovers.
We'll review the coach's film to diagnose where the Patriots are finding success against Allen. Speaking to the Patriots defenders post-game, they credited their assistant coaches for preparing them for the Bills offense.
"That's a big testament to [linebackers coach Jerod] Mayo. He gets us ready every day. We know what Josh Allen wants to do. He's a playmaker, so he wants the ball in his hands for the most part," captain Deatrich Wise told Patriots.com. "We knew what he was going to do. We knew the formations that they would run during the game."
As we spin this season forward, Allen and these Bills aren't going anywhere with another chance to win the AFC East for the fourth straight year. Whoever is the head coach or quarterback in Foxborough, solving their Josh Allen problem was a huge obstacle they needed to overcome.
Ultimately, the Patriots split their two games, with each team winning at home versus their division foes this season. Still, New England has a blueprint to go toe-to-toe defensively with Allen, who has begun playing recklessly and inconsistently, which is also good for the Patriots moving forward.
Here are eight observations as the Patriots drop to 4-12 with one game remaining in their season:
1. Powerful Player of the Game Presented by Enel: Jalen Reagor's 98-Yard Opening Kickoff Return TD
The Patriots flipped the script on the Bills with an opening kickoff return touchdown. Some revenge from Buffalo using two kickoff return touchdowns by Nyheim Hines to knock New England out of the playoffs last season in Week 18.
According to the special teams aces, the Patriots anticipated the Bills would twist on their way down the field to mess with the Pats counts in their blocking scheme. New England had the right alerts to adjust to how Buffalo was covering the kick, and Reagor had a clear runway to build up speed.
From there, it's all Reagor as the seas part. Reagor was first contacted around the 31-yard line, running through a diving tackle attempt as he gained speed. Then, Reagor bounces off the kicker and pulls away to pay dirt in front of a stunned crowd of Bills Mafia.
The Patriots will be second-guessed for waiting to put Reagor on kickoffs until Week 13. Initially, the Pats had Ty Montgomery returning kickoffs, but Reagor has shown a knack for it, with the ability to hit big plays.
Reagor's return allowed the Patriots to stay in the game while the offense sputtered out of the gate with four turnovers in their first six drives.
2. Breaking Down QB Bailey Zappe's Three Interceptions in Loss to the Bills
The Patriots current starting quarterback put it bluntly at the podium following the loss: "you can't win a football game when you turn the ball over."
Zappe, who gets some credit for bouncing back after a disastrous start, acknowledged the team had little chance to win, with the offense turning the ball over four times in the first half for the first time in the Belichick era. Every interception has context, which we'll provide here.
On the first interception, the Patriots ran a quick game concept to start the drive. Zappe said he could've gotten the ball out quicker. But this felt like Bills CB Rasul Douglas anticipating the inside hitch route as a typical Pats first down play, an example of how well these two teams know each other.
As for the second interception, Douglas was on the scene again. This time, Zappe makes a poor read on the play. Douglas is sitting inside a slant by DeVante Parker on a pass-pass option. The quarterback can throw the isolation route to Parker or flip the ball to Pop Douglas on a screen. With Douglas sitting inside Parker's route, Zappe acknowledged he should've thrown to the screen side as a proper leverage read.
Lastly, Zappe's third interception was a miscommunication with WR Jalen Reagor. The Patriots slid the protection to pick up the blitz threats to the quarterback's right, so if the edge rusher blitzes off the left side, the quarterback is "hot" on the play. Since the rusher comes, Reagor should've adjusted his route to make himself available quicker to the quarterback to beat the blitz. Instead, Reagor stays on the deeper break, and you can see the end result.
Zappe had his moments where his pocket mobility and deep ball were effective. Most notably, a third-down conversion on a throw to tight end Mike Gesicki, where Zappe alludes pressure, keeps his eyes downfield and finds Gesicki for the first down.
Still, the Patriots current QB1 had them in winning positions recently because he was turning the ball over less than Mac Jones. Zappe didn't give his team a chance to win in this game. The Fever broke.
3. Patriots Defense Starting to Figure out QB Josh Allen, Bills Offense
The biggest reasons given to Patriots.com by the players for the defense's success were more familiarity with Buffalo's staple concepts and how the Bills want to attack the Pats system.
New England got Allen out of rhythm by taking away his immediate answers in structure, battling with Allen in playground mode, and holding up against the Bills running game. Buffalo came into the game running at will recently, but the Pats did enough to force the Bills into being more one-dimensional and had their formations and staple plays figured out.
For example, rookie CB Alex Austin credited his preparation for a second-quarter interception. Austin told me the Patriots practiced the post-wheel concept the Bills ran on the play. With the Pats in cover-three match, Josh Allen sees LB Marte Mapu carrying the wheel and thinks Austin is occupied by the post, so he throws the wheel. Instead, Austin falls off the post by passing it off to safety Jalen Mills and uses an excellent speed turn to high-point the wheel route.
Although he's had growing pains in a new system, Austin has the length and athleticism to develop into a boundary corner in this league. His issues haven't been about physical ability but rather route anticipation and his grasp of the system, so there might be something there.
As for the Bills quarterback, the Patriots have made real progress with their team speed defensively and knowledge of Buffalo's offense to battle with Allen. The Pats also held Bills star WR Stefon Diggs to four catches for 26 yards on seven targets, which felt again like confusing Allen had more to do with that than anything exotic against Diggs.
As we said in the intro, Allen looking human against the Pats defense twice this season is a positive development.
4. Patriots Sit LT Trent Brown Amidst Issues Along the Offensive Line
As always, we'll have to review the film for an accurate assessment of the offensive line. However, another storyline from this game was starting left tackle Trent Brown being a healthy inactive. Brown, who was removed from the injury report on Friday with a mid-week illness, didn't have a locker in the Patriots visitors locker room in Buffalo. There have also been reports that motivation has been an issue for Brown since injuries piled up for him.
Instead, the Patriots started backup OT Vederian Lowe at left tackle with two rookie guards, Atonio Mafi (LG) and Sidy Sow (RG). Post-snap movement by the defensive front continues to plague this offensive line, with the Bills registering sacks on an inside twist (Ed Oliver) and a late blitz when LB Terrel Bernard added into the rush off a play-action concept. In the second half, it felt like Zappe was hurrying to get the ball out before the pocket collapsed around him. The Patriots seem to be headed for a divorce with Trent Brown, making left tackle a major offseason need.
5. Rookie Specialists' Struggles Continue with Multiple Miscues in Kicking Game
Although it's not why they're 4-12, the Patriots having shaky special teams from their rookie specialists hasn't helped their cause this season. Rookie kicker Chad Ryland missed his ninth kick of the year on a 47-yard attempt and would've missed again from 53 yards, but the Pats were called for delay of game, resulting in a punt rather than another field goal attempt. For those hoping Ryland would build confidence after his game-winner in Denver, the fourth-round rookie regressed to the mean on Sunday, with his miss taking a hard left turn mid-flight.
As for rookie punter Bryce Baringer, the sixth-round pick has fared better this season than Ryland. Still, the Bills got the ball back around mid-field late in the game when Baringer booted just a 45-yard punt with a 38-yard net from the NE 11. It wasn't an awful punt, but it didn't flip the field, so Buffalo only needed a few first downs to ice the game.
The Patriots rode with two rookies this season, but Baringer, who needs to be more consistent, and Ryland, who has really struggled, have yet to prove their staying power in the NFL.
6. Patriots Rookie EDGE Keion White Logs Four QB Pressures, Two QB Hits
Another positive development for the Patriots is that second-rounder Keion White is starting to stack up good performances late in the season. After a highly disruptive game in the win over the Broncos, White logged four quarterback pressures and two QB hits based on live viewing. On one play, White pressured Allen in the pocket while fellow day-two pick Marte Mapu took away Allen's read over the middle in a zone drop. Hopefully, those plays are shades of things to come. Furthermore, White also showed great reactive athleticism to chase down Allen in this one. The Pats have something with their second-round pick. If he develops a pass-rush plan and better block anticipation with more experience, White is going to be a problem.
7. WR DeMario Douglas Inches Closer to Belichick-Era History for a Rookie Receiver
With three catches for 31 yards, Douglas now has the most receptions (47) and receiving yards (548) for a Patriots rookie wide receiver under coach Bill Belichick. Douglas passed former second-round pick Aaron Dobson for the yardage marker amongst rookies on Sunday while also passing Rob Gronkowski for the second-most receiving yards for a Pats rookie. With 15 more receiving yards in the season finale, Douglas will have the most yards of any first-year pass-catcher, wide receiver or tight end, since Belichick took over in 2000. Douglas also added 12 yards on three carries vs. the Bills this week. Pop is having a great rookie year.
8. Quick Shout Outs from the Patriots Loss to the Bills in Week 17
- RB Ezekiel Elliott has saved the offensive line's bacon on two notable carries in the last two weeks. On Sunday, Elliott danced out of a would-be TFL for a six-yard gain that moved the chains on third down. Zeke has been as advertised as a platoon back this season.
- QB Bailey Zappe's mobility showed up on his 17-yard TD run and another 17-yard scramble. Those moments of escapability give him a leg-up on Mac Jones.
- Patriots OC Bill O'Brien continued to use window dressing with motion/misdirection to throw off the Bills defense. Most notably, Kevin Harris's 48-yard gain on a screen pass was set up by O'Brien using jet motion and two fakes to play games with Buffalo's zone structure. BOB also had a great design on a toss sweep to Douglas for a nifty play.
- LB Jahlani Tavai left the game after a team-high ten tackles and a TFL. Tavai has played well as an under-the-radar contributor this season. The injury appeared to be to his ankle.
- The one coverage breakdown by the Patriots secondary came on a missed deep ball by Allen to Diggs. It appeared CB Jon Jones anticipated post-safety help in trail technique, but the post-safety jumped a crosser instead. The Pats were lucky it wasn't a big play.