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Patriots path forward goes through AFC East

A season-ending loss to the Bills shows the Patriots must renew their focus on the divisional opponents this offseason.

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It's hard to put much shine on the Patriots' season-ending defeat at the hands of their divisional rivals, the Buffalo Bills, which Bill Belichick, speaking to the media for the final time on Sunday morning, called, "the least competitive game that we played last year."

Once again the Patriots defense had no answer for Josh Allen, and their own young offense couldn't make enough big plays to keep pace.

"Certainly last night's game was important and not in any way trying to minimize that, but at the same time, there were 17 other meaningful games, so 18 in all, that I think we really need to look at and see how we can do a better job of everything, coaching, playing, schematically, whatever adjustments we need to make there and so forth, and just in season planning for next year," said Belichick.

The loss was characteristic of how the team played down the stretch, as they finished 1-4 after their late bye week and looked flat in every game except against the hapless Jags. Jones' play certainly was a factor in those losses, but as a rookie, a slowdown of some sort had to be expected. Without a supporting defense at the most critical part of the year, Jones was often put in difficult positions and rarely picked up by the other side of the ball. The defense handed him just one single takeaway in the final four losses.

"Mac helped us a lot and we look forward to working with him next year," said Belichick. "We all have things we need to work on and that goes for every player and that'll be part of the conversation with every player and for the coaching staff, what we all individually and collectively need to improve on."

The formula that emerged during the seven-game win streak was clear. The defense produced turnovers and stops in bunches, and Mac and the ground game were able to feast. But those takeaways and stops soon dried up and the whole formula was cracked as soon as they ran into the good, full-strength teams.

They entered that bye week with a win-out for the top seed scenario and were once again briefly atop the NFL world. From there it went from bad to worse, to an ending that was almost worse than imaginable.

Despite the defeat, the Patriots are in better position now than they were a year ago. The 2021 draft class was outstanding and critically needed. Mac Jones, Christian Barmore and Rhamondre Stevenson showed they will be important parts of the future in New England. Their offseason development is already something to be excited about for the summer.

"Christian played a lot of snaps this year," said Belichick. "He took a lot of snaps in practice. He was a durable and dependable player for us. I think he has a real good future."

The offense will largely return intact, with holes to solve at left guard and right tackle with Ted Karras and Trent Brown due for free agency. Otherwise, all the running backs, tight ends and wide receivers, including restricted free agent Jakobi Meyers, should be back. That continuity will only help Jones' development, as will the strides players like Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor make in their second season.

Additions to increase the explosiveness of the offense would be welcome. Free agents James White and Brandon Bolden, and the future at the third-down running back role are also significant questions.

Defensively, the questions have piled up since the loss in Indianapolis started a chain of bad play and bottomed out in Buffalo. The veteran free agent list is long, starting with J.C. Jackson, Dont'a Hightower and Devin McCourty. We'll find out how many of the Patriots veterans, including special teams ace Matthew Slater, decide they'd like to keep playing.

The biggest offseason debate begins with Jackson: to Franchise Tag him, sign him long-term or let him walk.

Whether due to retirements or free agency departures, the Patriots defense was bound to look different in 2022. The latest loss to the Bills only reinforced it. Re-signing Adrian Phillips was a positive first step, Kyle Dugger took significant steps forward this, while Matthew Judon and Jalen Mills had their issues but remain solid signings.

As the offseason begins, the team-building approach should be obvious: continue to build around Jones and the offensive foundation, and on defense, to take a long look at all levels of the defense and chart a course toward slowing down Josh Allen and Tua Tagovailoa.

The road to the playoffs starts through the AFC East, and the Patriots went 1-4 against their two divisional rivals in Buffalo and Miami.

For some, this loss might mean the end of something bigger. But for the players like Jones, who will form the immediate new core of the Patriots, this was just the start of a challenging rivalry. Mac will certainly be better in 2022 for the drubbing he and the Pats took on Saturday night, as will the others who will be in New England for this fall and beyond.

But it will be of little consequence if the defense can't overcome some significant veteran turnover on the fly. For as successful as the 2021 offseason was, 2022 is just as important, especially for a defense that looks due for a makeover.

The 2022 League year starts March 16.

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