In the end the Patriots season closed much the way the rest of it played out: not enough good plays to overcome the mistakes. In reality, the offensive performance in Buffalo was probably better than most weeks, but still nowhere good enough to keep up with the Bills – especially when the special teams continued to falter by allowing a pair of kickoff returns for touchdowns.
Truth be told the Bills didn't need that kind of help, but when they got it the Patriots chances of an upset were lost, as were the team's playoff chances when both Miami and Pittsburgh took care of their business, leaving New England on the outside looking in for the second time in three seasons.
There were many reasons for missing the postseason but most of those shortcomings came as a result of an alarming drop in production on offense. The Patriots ranked near the bottom of the league in dozens of categories including yards per game (26th), first downs (28th), third down efficiency (27th,), red zone (32nd) and offensive touchdowns (28th).
While the numbers are staggering, they become even more so when juxtaposed with last year's performance under rookie quarterback Mac Jones:
|3rd Down Effeciency||43.5%||34.8%|
Clearly, Jones and the offense took a major step back in Year 2 and it's impossible not to attribute at least some of that to the changes on the coaching staff. Josh McDaniels left to take over the Raiders and Bill Belichick opted to use Matt Patricia and Joe Judge in a collaborative process to replace him. Judge served as the quarterbacks coach while Patricia led the offensive line and was the de facto offensive coordinator while calling the plays.
It was a strange decision to use a coach who never called plays before and spent very little time on the offensive side of the ball in such an important role with a young and developing quarterback. And it wasn't just strange in the eyes of the media, who spent the entire offseason questioning the move.
It was clear that Mac Jones had his reservations as well, as he never appeared to mesh with the collaborative approach while often showing his frustration during games. Whether it was waving off instructions, imploring for changes in game plan or storming off the field, Jones had no problem letting his emotions show – especially during the latter portion of the season.
Now comes the interesting part: How does Belichick go about fixing it? When addressing the media a day after the season-ending loss in Buffalo, the coach said the process of evaluating the team would be underway immediately.
"As we do every year, evaluate everything, and try to make the best decisions we can to move forward, to be more competitive, to have a stronger team in the future," Belichick said. "So, Robert [Kraft] and I will talk about that, talk about that as a staff and certainly individual conversations with many of the players, all the players. It'll be a comprehensive course of action as it always is. I don't see the process being really any different, but we need to have better results. That's really the bottom line."
Belichick fielded several questions about the direction of the offense and specifically the coaching staff and each time referred back to the evaluations that will forthcoming. Interestingly, he included Jones as part of those evaluations. When asked if he expected to have Jones as his starter next season, Belichick was non-committal.
"Mac has the ability to play quarterback in this league," he said. "We have to all work together to try to find the best way as a football team, which obviously the quarterback is an important position, to be more productive than we were this year. So that's incumbent upon all of us. We'll all work together on that. Again, look for better results."
From the outside that would seem to involve a new play caller, but evidently, Belichick isn't ready to say the quarterback is entrenched. Jones almost certainly will be back for a third season, and given all of the coaching turmoil in 2022 he probably should be, but the fact that Belichick has been unwilling to call him the starter on a number of occasions is interesting.
Whether it's Jones leading the way in 2023 or not, the larger issue is the structure of the offense. Too often the Patriots attack lacked direction, and that was a problem all the way through. The plays often lacked sequence and failed to consistently include play action, motion and other elements that often keep defenses off balance. Ill-timed draws, most recently on a second-and-20 from the Bills 23 while trailing by 12 in the fourth quarter, were a particular problem throughout.
Belichick must find a way to effectively revamp the offense in order to compete with the upper-echelon teams, and not be left in the dust when a shootout ensues as it did in Buffalo.
The Patriots 8-9 mark included three wins against teams with winning records – Pittsburgh, Detroit and Miami – and all three finished 9-8 with only the Dolphins qualifying for the playoffs. New England finished 3-6 against teams with winning records, 1-6 against playoff teams and 5-3 against teams below .500. When allowing more than 17 points the Patriots finished 1-9 with the lone win coming in a 23-21 victory over Miami on New Year's Day when the Dolphins scored a meaningless touchdown with just over a minute left.
It wasn't all bad news for New England as a handful of individuals enjoyed strong campaigns. Matthew Judon finished with 15½ sacks and earned a spot on Pro Football Journal's All-Pro second team, tied with Philly's Haason Reddick. Michael Onwenu also was recognized as a second-team guard. Rookie Marcus Jones was tabbed as the first-team punt returner and Josh Uche's strong second half (11½ sacks) earned him a spot as the nickel pass rusher.
Week 18 tidbits
Coaching in the season finale has to be a strange feeling. Weighing factors like draft position, playoff preparation and contractual issues can't be easy for coaches who are programmed to prepare their teams to win and win only. Houston's Lovie Smith led the Texans to a late rally to beat Indy thanks to a two-point conversion in the closing seconds. In doing so Houston lost the No. 1 overall pick and Smith was out of a job by the end of the night, although those two factors were likely unrelated. Should the Texans have done everything they could to ensure the top pick, or is that an unfair expectation for professionals trying to find their way in the league? … The Chargers Brandon Staley took the field knowing his team was locked into the No. 5 seed but still kept many of his starters on the field deep into the second half of their loss in Denver. Justin Herbert went to the bench in the third quarter but standout wide receiver Keenan Allen played throughout, catching a meaningless touchdown in the final minutes. Joey Bosa, Mike Williams and Kenneth Murray, three key pieces who have battled injuries during the season, all went to the sidelines to be checked by the medical staff. Williams (back) was carted to the locker room at one point, although all three are expected to play wild card weekend against the Jags. Why did Staley take such an unnecessary risk? "This isn't a preseason game where you have 90 guys to choose from," Staley said. "You only have 48 players to choose from. You have to go out there and you have to field a football team." Staley is often unconventional with his in-game decisions, but none have been as reckless as what he did to his team in Denver. … Hats off to Detroit for playing hard and knocking the Packers out of the playoffs on the final game of the regular season. The Lions were eliminated less than hour before taking the field thanks to Seattle's overtime win, but that didn't stop them from emptying the tank to keep Aaron Rodgers out of the postseason.
There are 14 teams left to compete for the Super Bowl and here's how we rank them heading into the postseason.
- Buffalo (13-3) – The Bills shook off the cobwebs of an emotional week in the second half.
- Cincinnati (12-4) – The Bengals have that dangerous combination of talent and incentive thanks the league's strange seeding decisions.
- Kansas City (14-3) – Patrick Mahomes continues to torment the AFC West, and pretty much everyone else.
- San Francisco (13-4) – The Niners have to be the favorite in the NFC but I still have questions at quarterback.
- Philadelphia (14-3) – Assuming Jalen Hurts is healthy enough to be effective as a runner the Eagles are more than capable.
- L.A. Chargers (10-7) – Before the strange decision to play starters deep into a meaningless game, the Chargers were as healthy as they've been all season.
- Dallas (12-5) – I have no idea what to expect from the Cowboys, particularly the suddenly erratic Dak Prescott.
- Minnesota (13-4) – The Vikings are as flawed as any team with 13 wins heading into the playoffs has ever been.
- Jacksonville (9-8) – The Jags may not be quite ready for this spot but Trevor Lawrence has played well down the stretch.
- Tampa Bay (8-9) – This is probably still too high but You Know Who is still the quarterback.
- N.Y. Giants (9-7-1) – The Giants will have every opportunity to come out of Minnesota with a victory this weekend.
- Baltimore (10-7) – If Lamar Jackson was healthy I'd have the Ravens much higher but the lack of offense prevents the ranking from rising.
- Miami (9-8) – The Dolphins are a dangerous team with Tua Tagovailoa but not so much without him.
- Seattle (9-8) – I give Pete Carroll and Geno Smith tons of credit for getting here but I don't believe they'll make it out of the weekend.