Image courtesy of AP Photos
Despite a valiant effort in difficult circumstances, the Patriots saw their season ended in Buffalo on Sunday for the second straight year.
In a cauldron of raw emotion, New England fought through it, but fell 35-23 to the Bills in the season finale. With Pittsburgh beating Cleveland and Miami beating New York, it ended any hopes of the Patriots still getting into the tournament despite the loss. The Dolphins ended up locking up the No. 7 seed.
Two kickoff return touchdowns by Nyheim Hines – including the opening kickoff to start the game – were ultimately the difference. The Patriots finish at 8-9, missing the playoffs for the second time in three years and the team will head into one of the most intriguing offseason in franchise history with a ton of questions swirling around the staff and the roster.
“Proud of the way our guys competed and prepared, but in the end, collectively as players and coaches, it just wasn’t good enough today,” said head coach Bill Belichick.
The Bills wasted little time sending the crowd into bedlam mode when Hines took the opening kick off back 96-yards for a touchdown and then leaping into the stands.
“Obviously, disappointed with how the kicking game went today,” said special teams captain Matt Slater, who probably played his final game. “A little bit shellshocked. I felt like we didn’t give our team a chance to win the game and that’s very disappointing.”
A three-and-out for the Pats offense quickly followed as Mac Jones (26/40, 243, 3 TD, 3 INT) was sandwiched for a third down sack. Buffalo also had to punt after a big Deatrich Wise sack on third down. Jones hit Meyers with a well-designed play call from Matt Patricia for a 20-yard gain on third down to extend New England’s second possession. The drive turned out to be the best of the season as Mac shredded the Buffalo defense. Patricia even dialed up a designed quarterback draw at one point and the Pats finished it off with a ridiculous leaping catch from Meyers in the back of the end zone for a 2-yard TD. Given the circumstances, the 9-play, 74-yard march was the most impressive thing the offense – and particularly Patricia – had done all year.
The first quarter ended with Allen making a poor throw off his back foot on 3rd-and-7 inside the red zone, but Gabriel Davis came back to the ball before a Patriot defender could, setting Buffalo up with 1st-and-goal at the two. Allen found Knox for a TD two plays into the second for the 14-7 lead.
After trading punts, Jones led his second best drive of the season, again moving 74 yards. This time, even more creativity from the offense came to light and Jones eventually hit DeVante Parker (6/79/2 TD) for a 2-yard TD in the back right corner of the end zone on a ‘mesh’ concept, tying the game late in the half.
Buffalo responded and drove into the red zone in the final 30 seconds. That quickly ended when Devin McCourty picked off a duck near the Patriots’ 10 after Matt Judon got pressure on Allen. Mac tried one throw downfield to Jakobi Meyers after McCourty brought it back to the 34, but after an incompletion a kneel down sufficed and the Pats were more than happy to head to the locker room tied at 14.
The offense opened the third quarter with a six-minute march down to the Buffalo 21, a drive that included huge third and fourth down conversions to Hunter Henry. Unfortunately, a miscommunication between Jones and Nelson Agholor led to a Tre’Davious White interception inside the five for an absolutely killer turnover.
Just two snaps later though, the defense continued to make plays at it has all season when Jonathan Jones came up with a Peanut Tillman-esque punch out on a handoff to Devin Singletary and McCourty recovered the fumble at the Bills’ 11. After a missed pass interference call against Damien Harris and a missed hit to the head on Mac Jones on third down, New England settled for a 24-yard Nick Folk field goal for the first lead of the day at 17-14 with 7:06 left in the third.
Stunningly, Hines returned the ensuing kick off back for his second return TD of the afternoon, this one going for 101 yards to immediately give the Bills a four-point lead 13 seconds later. After a poor punt following a lackluster Pats’ drive, Josh Allen didn’t need long to find John Brown for a 42-yard touchdown on a diving catch, making it 28-17 in the final two minutes of the quarter.
Another ‘big boy’ drive for Mac Jones and the offense ended with a Parker leaping grab for a 27-yard touchdown with 11:37 to go in the game after a 4th-and-1 conversion to Jakobi Meyers. New England went for two and failed on a poorly executed screen, keeping the score at 28-25.
The Pats forced Buffalo into 2nd-and-23 after a penalty on the ensuing drive and then had 3rd-and-10. In typical Allen fashion, he launched a ball towards Stefon Diggs down the left sideline with pressure in his face, hitting him in stride for a 49-yard touchdown to quickly put the Bills back up by 12.
Remarkably, the Patriots had to quickly punt, but a Bills player touched the ball and New England recovered at the Bills’ 35. A ball off of Hunter Henry’s hands with the offense forced into a 3rd-and-19 situation on a high throw down the middle was soon defected and picked off by Matt Milano in the end zone with 5:35 left.
Buffalo – for some reason – chose to throw on its ensuing drive and ended up having to punt the ball back to New England with 3:25 remaining. It didn’t matter though, as another tipped ball, this time off the hands of Damien Harris, led to an interception from Tremaine Edmunds before kneel downs officially ended the season.
“Not to talk about last year or anything, but it’s the same story here towards the end of the season we have to play better,” said Jones. “We have to win this game to get a chance to move on and that’s how every season’s going to be in the NFL. Either you get close to making the playoffs and have to win out, or you’re there with a win-or-go home. We just couldn’t do that today. I’m proud of the guys. It’s just tough because we had such a great group of guys.”
“There’s a great young core of players in that locker room that are going to be good for this franchise for a long time,” Slater added. “As frustrating as it is now, the future’s bright.”
This was probably McCourty and Slater’s final game. Jakobi Meyers is going to get paid as a free agent, so he may not be back. The offensive coaching staff and special teams coaching staff clearly both need readjusting. Is Bill still the man for the job moving forward? Or, is Robert Kraft finally ready to rip the band-aid off?
The next few weeks and months could end up shaping the next two decades for this franchise.