Patriots miss playoffs with loss to Buffalo


Give the Patriots some credit for keeping this one interesting for a while.

But in the end, Sunday’s win-and-in game against the Buffalo Bills ended the way most of us expected: with a loss. Unfortunately, neither the Miami Dolphins nor Pittsburgh Steelers felt like helping them out, either.

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A valiant effort from Mac Jones (26-40, 243 yards, 3 TDs, 3 INTs) and the Patriots’ defense was spoiled by Nyheim Hines’ massive day (two kick-return touchdowns) and Josh Allen’s (19-31, 254 yards, 3 TDs, INT) bounce-back second half, sending New England to an early vacation by a score of 35-23.

With the loss, Miami will now claim the seventh and final AFC Wild Card spot, and Buffalo locks up the No. 2 seed in the AFC.

Here’s how it went down.

Patriots refuse to lay down but can’t finish the job

The emotional haymaker the Patriots were expecting came on the very first play of the game as Nyheim Hines ran the opening kickoff back 96 yards for a touchdown, sending Highmark Stadium into the stratosphere.

New England could’ve easily just gone with a movie script and let the Bills have their storybook ending to the regular season. But, as it’s proven on multiple occasions, this team doesn’t stay dead.

The defense forced two punts and a turnover in the first half, and Mac Jones stood tall and led two touchdown drives to keep pace.

Then, after Hines ran back another touchdown return for 101 yards, Jones threw another touchdown pass to DeVante Parker to keep hope alive.

When Josh Allen’s touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs looked like it stuck a knife in the Patriots for good in the fourth quarter, Matthew Slater engineered a muffed punt recovery through sheer guile that gave New England a last chance – a Mac Jones interception ended that, unfortunately.

In the end, it came down to a simple truth: the Bills are better than the Patriots, and New England couldn’t hold them off forever without both playing a perfect game – thanks a lot, special teams – and a number of breaks going its way.

The Patriots at least went down fighting, which we couldn’t say about their finish in Orchard Park last year at this time.

Until they get some more talent to truly hang with Josh Allen and company, that might be the best they can hope for.

Mac Jones shows how far he’s come but still has a ways to go

It’s totally fine to have questions about Jones’ ceiling and whether or not New England can win a Super Bowl with him down the line.

But even if you’re not enamored with him as a player, what he did against Buffalo should encourage you for a few reasons.

Meeting the moment and keeping his team in a game many expected them to get blown out in is a good story in and of itself. Beyond that, though, Jones put everything he’s learned against the Bills to the test in arguably his best game of the season.

Specifically, the Bills have made no secrets about their strategy against Jones in the four times they’ve played him: force the less-than-rocket-armed quarterback to throw the ball down the field and outside the numbers.

That game plan tortured Jones as a rookie, and the Bills repeatedly took advantage of his struggles to make advanced NFL throws last year. In Week 18 of 2022, he showed he’s no longer phased, continuously driving the ball to the sideline to DeVante Parker. It didn’t always look perfect, but it got the job done consistently.

He generally showed solid poise and even finally got that deep ball touchdown he's been working on with Parker all season.

Of course, there were still some teachable moments in there.

His red-zone interception to Tre’Davious White was equal parts rough decision and bad effort from Nelson Agholor, and he nearly got picked by Tremaine Edmunds on another throw. He threw late and short to Damien Harris in the end zone on a pass that should’ve been a touchdown (though it also should’ve been called pass interference on Matt Milano), and his high miss to Hunter Henry that Milano picked in the end zone was probably an unnecessary risk that spelled doom for the Patriots’ season.

If you want to find reasons to blame Jones for the loss, you’ll find a few plays to point to. But if you wanted to see growth from Jones heading into next season, you certainly got that as well.

A new era in New England on the horizon?

Operating in the post-Tom Brady era has already been stressful enough for the Patriots fans. Now, New England might be about to lose several other core players, including the heart and soul of the team.

Devin McCourty, who had a clutch interception, has hinted that this might be his final NFL season. Matthew Slater, while making no such commitment yet, will be 38 years old next year.

The wide receiving corps could look entirely different with Jakobi Meyers and Nelson Agholor set to be free agents and neither Kendrick Bourne nor DeVante Parker completely assured spots on next year’s team. Tyquan Thornton might well be the only receiver who will absolutely make the 53-man roster in 2023.

The offensive tackle spot could be in for an overhaul with Isaiah Wynn all but gone and Trent Brown’s future less-than-100-percent certain.

Jonathan Jones, the team’s No. 1 cornerback, will be an unrestricted free agent.

Though Bill Belichick will still be here in all likelihood, the team could be looking for a new offensive play-caller and special teams coach due to poor performance and could well lose both Jerod Mayo and Nick Caley. You thought the brain drain was bad last year? It could be even bigger next year, if not quite as impactful offensively if you get Bill O’Brien or someone else competent in the building.

This season ended more or less the way a lot of people predicted: middling and outside of the playoffs.

Next year could present an opportunity to shift things meaningfully in the right direction – or stay in purgatory for the foreseeable future.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports