Gillette Stadium – For the third-straight game over the last two seasons, the Bills continued their dominance of the Patriots in a 24-10 victory for Buffalo on Thursday Night Football.
Two elements of this matchup are worth addressing off the top, and neither is a positive development for New England. Frankly, the Bills are a superior team with better roster talent and a modern-day superstar at the quarterback position. They're better than the Patriots, plain and simple, and the mismatch shows every time these two teams play.
However, there was a window for the Patriots to make Thursday night's game competitive when the Pats defense found a formula against the Bills offense. Bill Belichick's defense forced two punts and caused an Allen strip-sack that gave their offense the ball at their own 42-yard line in a 17-7 deficit. The Patriots offense punted twice following Buffalo's punts and then had to attempt a 48-yard field goal due to a poor 1:20 drill before the half.
After gaining 23 yards on the first two plays, the Patriots called consecutive short-yardage runs, burning their final two timeouts between plays. Prioritizing the first down over the clock and field position led to a longer field goal on a windy night, summing up this team's lack of situational awareness and attention to detail.
The offense fell into bad habits where they were not aggressive enough on early downs play calls, had one wrinkle in an uninspiring passing script, and poorly handled an end-of-half situation. Defensively, they also had their issues, drifting too far away from the zone coverage sequencing when Buffalo built their lead that had Allen flirting with turnovers.
Ultimately, the Patriots lost to the Bills on Thursday night because Buffalo is the better team. The reason why the game wasn't more competitive? Coaching, poor situational football, and a lack of attention to detail.
Here are eight takeaways as the Patriots fall to 6-6 on the season with a loss to the Bills on Thursday Night Football:
1. Powerful Play of the Game presented by Enel: Marcus Jones 48-Yard Touchdown in the First Quarter
Although it was the only glimmer of hope for the Patriots offense, the Patriots had one trick up their sleeve saved for the Bills that produced their longest offensive touchdown of the season.
The Patriots ran a pin-pull sweep run-pass option where the quarterback had the choice to hand the ball off to the running back or throw a "fast" screen to the perimeter, depending on where the numbers were for the defense. In this instance, the Pats timed it perfectly, with the Bills sending a slot blitz out of a cover-two structure to the quarterback's left. The screen is called to throw the ball right into the blitz, so it becomes a two-on-one situation for the offense. DeVante Parker gets just enough on his block of safety Damar Hamlin, who is rotating down to replace the blitzer in man coverage, and Jones is off to the races for an impressive score.
As much as we want to give the offensive staff credit, Jones's touchdown was the only productive wrinkle that the Patriots had all night and produced the offense's only touchdown.
2. On the Offensive Coaching: Patriots Quick-Game Passing Plan Backfires, Play Sequencing Still an Issue, and Repeat Plays That Better Defenses Sniff Out
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones told reporters that the Patriots game plan was to rely on quick passing concepts aimed at taking what Buffalo's defense gave them and forcing the Bills to tackle in space.
On the surface, you can understand why the coaching staff thought this would be effective. The Bills are a zone-heavy coverage system that plays out of two-high shells, meaning it's tough for receivers to uncover on downfield concepts. Plus, the Pats were down to their fourth-string right tackle, and Buffalo ranks near the bottom of the league in missed tackle rate this season.
However, the problem was that the Patriots lack dangerous ball carriers outside of running back Rhamondre Stevenson and, as we found out, Marcus Jones. Without true catch-and-run talent, the only 20-plus yard play the Pats generated was Jones's touchdown.
Eventually, as the quarterback said, Patricia adjusted to call more downfield concepts. But it was too little too late, as the Patriots were already trailing 24-7 at that point in the game.
Along with the game plan, there are still sequencing issues and, based on our live viewing, repeat passing plays that defenses are sniffing out on third down. When you play an NFC opponent on a short week, the Vikings might need more study time or institutional knowledge of your scheme to anticipate specific play calls. But the Bills know you, and if you're going to be that simple offensively, you better execute at a high level, which the Patriots did not do on Thursday night.
As for the play sequencing, New England's lack of early-down aggression was puzzling, with only five play-action passes in our live charting. One example was a three-play following Buffalo's punt on their opening drive of the second half. Following a quick pass into the flat, the Pats gained 24 yards on three-straight Stevenson runs. But the positive yards resulted more from Stevenson creating yards after contact than well-blocked plays by the line.
Instead of recognizing how they were successful on the ground and building off that success with play-action, Patricia called a third-straight first-and-ten run that lost four yards. The situation was begging for under-center play-action, but it wasn't called, and now you're behind the sticks.
The Pats offensive talent and quarterback are not on par with the Bills. But they're trending toward the worst offense we've seen in New England in nearly 30 years. As we saw in Mac's rookie season, they're more talented than that. The fact that it's this bad is on the coaching.
3. Frustration With the Patriots Offensive Line Situation is Starting to Boil Over
The offensive line situation is starting to take its toll on this group. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick acknowledged that the coaching staff had to work around a patchwork offensive line that continues to cycle through right tackles and can't build any continuity. The Pats receivers also felt that they dialed up deeper shot plays, but the quarterback didn't have enough time to get them the ball, and they struggled in the running game. It's tough to drag a group that is clearly banged up and struggling to find a starting five it can roll with consistently. Still, the offensive line play hasn't been good enough all year and is high on the list of reasons for the offense's struggles.
4. Patriots QB Mac Jones Laments Struggles With Executing the Game Plan Effectively
New England's second-year quarterback fielded questions about the variety of the offense's play calls, the Pats third-down issues, and situational miscues before the half and didn't point to coaching. Maybe Mac was protecting his coaches, but his frustration was more execution-based than anything with the coaching staff.
For example, Jones took the blame for the botched handoff that cost the Patriots an opportunity to pick up a third-and-one on a handoff to Stevenson on the opening drive and mentioned he needed to execute the quick-game concepts that Patricia was calling better than he did.
Although we'll say it for him with the coaching, there was at least one instance where Jones's eyes were in the wrong place, something we've already discussed with him this season.
One of those plays was an intentional grounding call that put the offense in a third-and-18 from their own goal line. Based on the cut blocks from both tackles, the play is designed to quickly get the ball out of the quarterback's hands. Jones starts with his eyes to the backside, where he reads Parker's route to Stevenson's release in the flat, and both receivers are covered. However, if he opens to the three-receiver side, Hunter Henry is open for a completion. Since Jones's eyes are stuck on the covered backside routes, he holds the ball, and the pressure in the pocket forces him into intentional grounding rather than taking a sack.
Without knowing how he's being coached, it's hard to gauge whether Jones is opening in the wrong direction or that's what he's being taught. But it's coming up on his tape too often, and the production isn't there.
5. Patriots Defense Has Ups and Downs vs. Josh Allen, Bills Offense
The defensive game plan and execution against Allen was better this time, reflected by forcing Buffalo to punt three times and causing a turnover to hold the Bills to 24 points. This is how it goes when an elite offense plays a good defense. They win some, you win some, and you hope it's enough in the end. Unfortunately, it wasn't.
New England opened the game with four-straight passing plays in zone coverage, mixing cover-two structures with cover-three schemes out of dime defense. The zone sequencing won them their fair share of plays and limited the Bills offense to zero passes of 20-plus air yards.
One of those huge wins for the Patriots came on a third down strip-sack by Josh Uche, which felt like it could've been a turning point in the game. The Pats fell into a cover-three zone after disguising it pre-snap, which got Allen to hold the ball long enough for Uche to use a "ghost" rush around backup left tackle David Quessenberry to knock the ball loose.
Although it was better, the defense still couldn't get the Bills off the field on third down (9-15, 38:08 TOP) and gave up touchdowns on all three red zone trips. The Pats got caught in man coverage a few too many times, ran the Myles Bryant-Isaiah McKenzie matchup back out there for most of the first half, and "came out of coverage" too soon on Gabriel Davis's touchdown.
Allen killed the Patriots defense on an extended play out of man coverage on the Davis TD. In the play, the Pats are in man coverage, with linebacker Mack Wilson serving as a QB spy. With Wilson hurrying Allen into the sideline, the rest of the defense gave up on the play too early, and Allen made a spectacular effort to throw Davis open in the end zone.
The Patriots defense was far more competitive than the two matchups at the end of last season, so they'll get a passing grade from us. But with this offense, they need to dominate to win, and they know it based on their post-game comments.
6. Patriots Defense Needs a Better Plan vs. Number One Receivers, Stefon Diggs
If the last two weeks are any indication, the Patriots defensive coaches need to devise better ways to slow down elite wide receivers such as Stefon Diggs (or Justin Jefferson last week).
Diggs didn't kill the Pats as badly as Jefferson, finishing the game with seven catches for 92 yards and a touchdown. But his impact plays felt like haymakers against the Patriots defense, who lived with Diggs's production to provide help to Buffalo's other receivers, mainly McKenzie.
Many of the Patriots man coverage schemes were designed to cut off McKenzie working across the field either out of their one-cross or robber coverages. On Diggs's touchdown, Devin McCourty is working a "cut" coverage on McKenzie out of the right slot to cut off the crossing route, leaving Jon Jones one-on-one in man coverage on Diggs, who beat him for six.
The Pats are allowing star receivers to take over, and the schedule doesn't get any easier when it comes to this: DeAndre Hopkins, Davante Adams, Ja'Marr Chase, Tyreek Hill, and then Diggs again. Figure it out, or this could be an ugly end to the season.
7. Patriots RB Rhamondre Stevenson Grinds Out 54 Rushing Yards on Ten Carries
If the Patriots offense broke through to make this game competitive, Stevenson would deserve all the credit in the world. Really, this offense would be nowhere without him this season.
The fact that the Pats second-year running back averaged 5.4 yards per rush with the holes being generated for him by the offensive line is astounding. We'll get the final yards after contact numbers for you in After Further Review. But it felt like most of his yards on Thursday night came after first contact. Just check him out pushing the pile in the play above.
8. Patriots Playoff Hopes Hinge on Two-Game West Coast Road Trip
Patriots players are off until Tuesday, when they'll begin preparations for next Monday night's game against the Arizona Cardinals in Glendale. The team will then stay out west for a west coast double-header, with the Raiders in Vegas next up on the schedule. If they can win both games against two sub-.500 teams, they'll give themselves a chance at 8-6 to squeak into the playoffs. If not, their season will likely be over before Christmas. Harsh reality.