Orchard Park, NY – The Patriots are who we thought they were as their season came to an end in a 35-23 loss to the Bills at Highmark Stadium on Sunday.
New England's demise in an afternoon where they controlled their playoff destiny with a win-and-in scenario wasn't because the Bills completely overmatched them, so in that sense, they showed us something new, but it's clear where this team is deficient as we head into the offseason.
The Patriots fell short because the clean execution we are used to seeing in all three phases from a Bill Belichick-coached team wasn't there, and their downfall was not one but two kickoff return touchdowns that spotted Buffalo 14 points, which is too much to overcome against a team as good as the Bills.
As we head into an uncertain offseason, Belichick has to take a long look at this coaching staff and make some difficult decisions. These coaches work hard, and most of them have been with Belichick for a while, but changes need to be made on offense and special teams to get this team build this team into a contender. Although this was a much-improved offense in the final game, the head coach can't be a prisoner of the moment and needs to look at the season as a whole.
New England's details weren't buttoned up offensively, and there were signs of that again on Sunday amidst the good things; missed blitz pickups, poor routes, a bad INT decision by the QB, lousy on third down (4-13), and not good enough in the red zone (2-4). In the kicking game, this is a two-year problem under special teams coordinator Cam Achord.
The Patriots roster has a ways to go before its Super Bowl caliber, but they are building in that respect, and there is more talent than their 8-9 record suggests. They'll need to upgrade at offensive tackle and boundary corner, potentially replace a legend at free safety, and are still chasing the golden goose at wide receiver. New England is getting closer, though, and should stay the course.
Ultimately, turning the tide for this organization will come down to their legendary head coach making an honest judgement about his coaching staff to do what is best for the football team.
Here are eight observations as the Patriots season ends with a disappointing loss in Buffalo:
1. Powerful Play of the Game presented by Enel: Patriots Pass Rush Causes Key Red Zone Interception to End First Half
As we put a bow on the 2022 season, the Patriots defense deserves one last tip of the cap for a competitive season until the final whistle.
New England has a building block defensively, with Matthew Judon, Josh Uche, and others racking up 52 sacks and ranking top five in pressure rate, with the group at it again in Sunday's loss.
On a key red zone interception before the half, the Patriots use their patented five-man rush package to run a three-man stunt where Judon loops around to collapse the interior of the pocket. Allen attempts to throw while under pressure, but Judon's pressure forces an underthrown ball that lands in Devin McCourty's lap.
The Patriots pass rush came to play every week, and the turnovers came every week, but it wasn't enough against the league's best quarterbacks.
2. Kudos to Matt Patricia for a Good Week 18 Script, But Changes Need to be Made Still
The Patriots experiment with the offensive coaching staff fell flat, and one game where they had a few creative designs and better first-half production doesn't change the big picture. Props to Patricia for coming up with a few good play calls, including a third-down play-action wrinkle where Jakobi Meyers motioned into the backfield and then released into the flat. Parker's red zone touchdown was well-designed to use Marcus Jones as a decoy on a boomerang motion.
New England's unofficial offensive play-caller finally dialed up some play-action, and the Patriots had good results. Who would've thought? It's not like we've been calling for motion and play-action all season. It's too little too late for Patricia, who can be a valuable asset but isn't the guy to run this offense or develop Mac Jones in the long term.
3. Patriots QB Mac Jones Can Build Off Late Season Stretch, Sunday's Performance
There will be offseason conversations about upgrading at quarterback, but there are too many positives to walk away from Mac Jones after two seasons. Statistically, Jones had his best performance against the Bills by throwing three touchdowns and adding +0.11 expected points added per play. The two fringe red-zone turnovers weren't great, but Mac was cooking in the first half, and special teams put him in a deficit that was too much to overcome.
Jones was red-hot finishing the opening two quarters 13-of-16 for 119 yards and two touchdowns. Although there were downfield throws as well, the best pass for Mac came on a two-yard touchdown pass to Jakobi Meyers, where he put the ball on a dime for Meyers to make the toe-tapping catch.
The second-year quarterback was solid from Thanksgiving on when given the proper support, but New England needs to get him some coaching and continue to hunt for playmakers.
4. Pats Defense Still Searching for Answers vs. Bills QB Josh Allen
There are multiple moments while watching Bills quarterback Josh Allen where you ask yourself, what is the defense supposed to do there? Belichick has thrown everything at Allen, for two straight seasons, from disguised zone coverage, drop-eight schemes, all-out pressure, man blitzes, exotic rotations, you name it. Allen doesn't necessarily look unphased by all of Belichick's scheming, but his ability to extend plays and thrive with his playmaking talent makes this matchup nauseating.
For example, the Patriots showed a cover-zero blitz before falling into a cover-three zone after the snap. Bluffing all-out pressure gets the Pats one-on-ones up front, and the pocket collapses. With it being third down, Jones was playing the sticks rather than a go route, and Allen found Stefon Diggs for a 49-yard touchdown. Blouses. What a ridiculous throw.
We can say the Patriots need to keep adding talent to their defense to defend Allen, and there's truth to that. But this superstar quarterback needs to be matched on the scoreboard in these big games. He's not going to be held down for four quarters.
5. New England Must Upgrade Boundary Cornerback in the Offseason to Play Belichick's System
Along with not having any answers for Allen, Bills star wideout Stefon Diggs has his way with the Pats defense every time. Diggs had seven catches for 107 yards and the big score to put the game away, adding his sixth touchdown against Belichick's defense in six regular season games since joining the Bills.
In Belichick's defense, the Patriots want to play man-to-man and post-safety structures that leave corners in single coverage on the outside. They don't want to double-team Diggs the entire game for whatever reason, and didn't on Sunday, with a few situational brackets and that was it. We know what this defense looks like when it's championship caliber personnel-wise with Ty Law, Darrelle Revis, and Stephon Gilmore. Although those guys don't grow on trees, they need to find one this offseason to pair with Marcus Jones and, hopefully, retain Jon Jones as they build toward 2023.
6. Patriots Offseason Search for a Mac's Number One Receiver Continues
The Patriots leading receiver in this game was veteran DeVante Parker (six catches, 79 yards, two touchdowns), and Parker had missed the last three games with a concussion. The jump-ball receiver did some good things this year, but he's not a consistent weapon in the same vein that Diggs is for Allen. Like boundary corners, elite receivers such as Diggs don't grow on trees. But the Patriots need to keep attacking that need until they fill it.
7. Matthew Slater, and Devin McCourty Potentially Play Final Games in the NFL
As the veteran leadership duo exited the field potentially for the last time, TV cameras caught them in a very emotional state. Unfortunately, Slater didn't go out the way he wanted with the two kickoff return touchdowns. But McCourty was battling to the end with an interception, a pass breakup in the end zone, and he was at the bottom of the pile on a key fumble recovery. It isn't easy to put into words what these two meant to this organization on and off the field. If this is it, they'll leave behind an enormous leadership void, and McCourty's role as Belichick's center fielder is a significant offseason need assuming he retires. Two all-time great Patriots who will wear red jackets.
8. Pending Veteran Free Agents Speak on Futures With Patriots
The general sentiment from pending free agents Jonathan Jones, Jakobi Meyers, and Damien Harris was that they'd love to be back. However, the vets are still processing the season's end and know the business of football awaits. Jones likely made himself some money with more exposures to elite receivers, while Meyers will be one of the top receivers on the market and showed well in the finale.