FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Sunday at Gillette, a Patriots fan in attendance for the latest Bills-Patriots matchup held up a sign that read, "All I want for Christmas is the AFC East." Her team could've given her that gift with a Boxing Day win over Buffalo, coupled with a Miami loss on Sunday night football in New Orleans.
However, she might have to make that same wish again next year. While still not impossible for New England to reclaim the throne upon which they sat for the better part of the last two decades, that prospect got a whole lot harder after dropping a 33-21 decision to the reigning AFC East champs.
With this defeat, the Patriots are Bills are now tied in overall record at 9-6, but the Bills hold a tie-breaker advantage within the division: Buffalo's 4-1, New England 3-2. The Patriots also slip for the moment to sixth overall in AFC playoff seeding, having a tie-breaker disadvantage to the Indianapolis Colts, who beat them last weekend. Had New England beaten Buffalo and if Kansas City were to lose to Pittsburgh during a 4 o'clock kickoff, the Patriots could've reclaimed the top spot overall in the conference.
None of those hypotheticals matter now, though, as the Patriots deal with yet another two-game losing skid this season, at the worst possible time. The lethargy New England exhibited throughout the Colts game a week ago seemed to carry over into this one. And when rookie QB Mac Jones and the offense finally came to life, it was too little, too late.
Without a blustery wind to oppose them the way it did a few weeks back in Buffalo, the Bills' offense proved capable of moving the ball almost at will through New England's defense. Buffalo had a 10-minute advantage in time of possession Sunday, and it seemed like even longer than that at times. Even their 13-point lead in the 3rd quarter felt greater than that, but in the 4th quarter, the Patriots found themselves only down one score with a chance to take their first lead of the day.
It wasn't to be, though. Missing two of his top receivers – Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis, both out with COVID – Bills QB Josh Allen needed to carry his team, and he did. Even if it required him to make unorthodox flip passes, run the ball himself, or fire deep passes downfield. Allen came to play Sunday, and he was given a lift by reserve wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie, whose 11 catches and 125 yards receiving were career highs for him.
Credit to Jones and the Patriots offense for making it competitive in the late stages, but it wasn't nearly consistent enough overall to win. If they don't make improvements quickly, on both sides of the ball, next week's visit by the Jacksonville Jaguars – the first of the 2022 calendar year – could be New England's last home game of the 2021 season.
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Mac Jones on the day
Incompletions vs. BUF
Incompletions in 2021
Jones was very lucky not to have another INT when defensive back Levi Wallace dropped a Jones deep pass into the end zone that went right through his hands. Later on that same 3rd-quarter drive, running back Damien Harris plunged into the end zone from a yard out, trimming the Bills' advantage to just six points as the third quarter drew near an end. Wallace's drop gave New England life.
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During the 2nd quarter, as the first half was coming to a close, a critical sequence prevented the Patriots from trimming Buffalo's 17-7 advantage at the time. On 3rd-and-10 from the NE 25, Jones saw his long pass fall incomplete, but defensive end Efe Obada collided with Jones, making contact with Jones' chin and drawing a roughing-the-passer penalty. The next play, Jones scrambled to around midfield and ran out of bounds along the Bills' sideline. While out of bounds, DE Jerry Hughes grabbed Jones by the back of the jersey, but it looked like he was trying to hold Jones up and prevent him from falling down.
A flag was initially thrown by referee Shawn Smith's officiating crew, but they discussed it and eventually ruled that no foul had been committed. That appeared to be the correct ruling, but prior to the next snap, right tackle Trent Brown took offense at the overturned call and began jawing at Buffalo's defense, which resulted in an unsportsmanlike conduct 15 yards the other way. Any momentum the Patriots had at that point got snuffed out and the drive stalled a couple plays later.
Loss of composure seemed to be a running theme for New England's offense, as center David Andrews would later pick up a taunting penalty that nullified an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Bills linebacker Matt Milano. This also came at a critical juncture with New England trying to mount a comeback. They'd eventually get a touchdown to trim the Bills' lead to 26-21, but these uncharacteristic penalties were emblematic of how undisciplined the Patriots have played the past couple of weeks.
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In addition to McKenzie, Buffalo relied heavily on running back Devin Singletary, who gained 39 yards rushing and an equal number receiving. Allen often checked down to Singletary on underneath throws that helped move the chains and eat up the play clock. Buffalo didn't have to punt once in this game and its offense was very aggressive on 4th-down plays, going 3-for-4 in that category. They also converted exactly half of their 12 3rd-down plays. Contrast that with New England's woeful 1-for-10 tally on 3rd down, although the Patriots were an impressive 5-for-6 on 4th downs themselves.
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Newly-minted Pro Bowl cornerback J.C. Jackson has seen better days. After Jones threw his first interception of the game and the Bills took over, Jackson had to leave the field to have his right arm examined inside the blue medical tent on the Patriots' sideline. He managed to come back the next series and play the rest of the game, but results were mixed.
Covering Bills receiver Stefon Diggs, Jackson appeared to interfere with him in the end zone on a 2nd-and-11 from the New England 12-yard line, but no flag was thrown. Yet, Diggs beat Jackson with relative ease on the very next play for a 12-yard TD reception. In the 4th quarter, trailing 26-21, Jackson dropped what might have been a potential pick-six in Bills territory to give his team its first lead of the day.
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Defensively, the Patriots had few answers for a short-handed Bills offense. Enter Allen, who, with just under five minutes to play, sealed the victory with his most impressive play of the day. On 4th-and-1 from the NE 34, Allen ran a nifty bootleg, making Jackson and linebacker Jamie Collins collide with one another in the Bills backfield as they tried to converge on Allen simultaneously. Allen slipped between them and gained the necessary yardage and more to keep alive a drive that would later end in another Allen big play. Appearing to run for the goal line himself on 2nd-and-goal, Allen drew two defenders toward him before flipping the ball to wide-open tight end Dawson Knox for the game's cheeky final touchdown.
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Powerful Play/Player of the Game presented by Enel
Damien Harris, coming off a hamstring injury that prevented him from playing in Indianapolis last weekend. Some of us were a bit concerned that Harris' injury might not be sufficiently healed, but with rookie Rhamondre Stevenson on the COVID reserve list, Harris had to shoulder the ball-carrying burden. He proved more than capable, running 18 times for 103 yards and three TDs. A rare glimmer of hope for an otherwise sluggish New England offense.