FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – One team came to Gillette preparing for the postseason; the other, the offseason. Normally, in Bills-Patriots matchups, New England is in the former position, but this Monday night, found itself in the latter.
Buffalo, meantime, arrived as the newly-crowned AFC East Champions and battling to keep pace with Pittsburgh for the still-up-for-grabs second seed in the AFC Playoffs. That's exactly how they looked throughout most of the night.
"Tonight, we didn't play as well as we're capable of and Buffalo played well," head coach Bill Belichick lamented. "It was obviously a good performance today by Buffalo. They've got a good team, they're well-coached. They played well tonight… outplayed us all the way across the board."
After a nifty opening kickoff return by Donte Moncrief, the Patriots had decent starting field position. However, a nice opening drive eventually stalled when WR Damiere Byrd dropped a trick-play pass from QB Cam Newton. Kicker Nick Folk drove home the 45-yard field goal to open scoring.
Buffalo responded with an even better return on the subsequent kickoff. Working on a short field, Bills QB Josh Allen guided his team inside the New England 5-yard line, but Buffalo had to settle for a 22-yard field goal by rookie Tyler Bass.
After the Patriots then went three-and-out, it looked as if the Bills would punt the ball right back to New England. Instead, Buffalo executed a textbook fake punt, in which the personal protector, Jaquan Johnson, took the quick snap and immediately tossed a completion to one of his gunners, Siran Neal, for a first-down pickup.
Thereafter, the Bills tried their best to squander the opportunity – a wide-open Taiwan Jones dropped a shouldda-been touchdown; Allen threw an INT that was called back because of an offside penalty by Adam Butler; TE Dawson Knox also dropped a wide-open touchdown.
Yet, at the start of the second quarter, the Bills' drive ended with a 5-yard touchdown run by rookie RB Zack Moss. Bass gave Buffalo a 10-3 lead with his ensuing extra point.
Largely on the ground, New England made it all the way inside the Bills' 10-yard line on the next possession. From there, Newton, who appeared to be sacked on a second-down play, somehow twisted his way loose and wound up scrambling into the end zone for an apparent game-tying touchdown. However, the normally reliable Folk missed the PAT, keeping the score 10-9 in Buffalo's favor.
Allen appeared to throw a brilliant touchdown on a 4th-and-2 from the Patriots' 43, but New England had called a timeout just before, nullifying the scoring play. Very next snap, though, Allen found Knox for a first-down to keep the drive moving. He'd later find a completely uncovered Lee Smith, the one-time Patriots tight end, for a short touchdown throw, upping the lead (with Bass' PAT) to 17-9 late in the first half.
The Bills got the ball back soon thereafter via a Patriots punt, and from midfield, Allen hit a streaking WR Stefon Diggs, who beat CB J.C. Jackson on a crossing route, turned up-field, and finished off the play by racing the remaining 35 yards to the end zone. Buffalo would take a 24-9 lead into the half.
"I didn't really see the ball. I feel like I hesitated a little bit. I [saw] the ball at the last minute. He caught the ball and ran it in for a touchdown. He's a good player. He's a playmaker. I could have done better, had tighter coverage. But I'll see him again. We play twice a year, every year."
Jackson wouldn't have to wait till next year to see Diggs again. Coming out of intermission, the Bills got the ball first and once again, Allen connected with Diggs for another touchdown at the end of a 75-yard drive – ducking out of a would-be tackle by Jackson to squirt into the end zone.
"Honestly, I feel like I could have played better," Jackson would admit afterward to reporters. "I have to keep working, trying to get better."
With a commanding 31-9 advantage, the Buffalo D forced yet another Patriots punt on a subsequent three-and-out series. When New England later got the ball back, Jarrett Stidham took over under center in place of Newton, but the result was the same – Patriots punted.
"There's 11 guys on offense, and everyone's got to do their job the right way, every single play in order to move the ball," remarked Stidham. "I wouldn't say it's just one thing [going wrong]. Collectively, all 11 of us need to be on the same page."
Later, the Allen-Diggs duo made it a hat trick, hooking up for an inventive third touchdown pass at the end of a 10-play, 95-yard drive. Buffalo offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who had two stints as an assistant here in New England, wasn't shy about emptying his playbook to put up 38 points against his former employer.
"They're a very good football team," Belichick emphasized. "This is why they're the AFC East Champions this year. They deserve to be."
Meanwhile, Patriots injuries piled up, with a number of starters unable to finish the game due to various ailments incurred or aggravated during the contest. The loss drops New England to 6-9 with one game to play in the regular season, guaranteeing the Patriots of their first losing record since 2000.
"I've sacrificed so much this year… and it hurts," Newton admitted. "It's extremely frustrating, knowing what you're capable of and having belief in yourself, but it's not showing when it counts the most."
"If you don't perform well, this is what can happen," cornerback Jason McCourty acknowledged in post-game comments to the media. "The NFL is the NFL. Nobody is beyond losing seasons. You get what you earn each and every year. One year is different from the next. No matter what you did the year before, 10 years before, when you come back that following year, you are what you put on tape. And we are the Patriots of this year, what we put on tape, what our record is.
"For us," he concluded, "we have one more opportunity left together [in 2020]. Whoever's out there [next week in the finale against the Jets]… we've got to go out there and compete."