Instant analysis from the Patriots' 24-21 loss to the Bills:
▪ The Patriots were right there at the end, a Cam Newton fumble away from sending this game to overtime or possibly winning it. But good teams find a way to win, and bad teams find ways to lose. The 2020 Patriots are definitely the latter.
Newton’s fumble was the back-breaker, and will be the play that gets shown over and over on the highlights. But the Patriots didn’t play well enough to win all day. The run defense was horrible. They were uncharacteristically sloppy with penalties. Their downfield passing game was non-functional. And Bill Belichick took a questionable gamble that backfired.
The Patriots are now 2-5, and deserve every bit of that record.
▪ Belichick and Josh McDaniels clearly have no faith in the offense. They called run plays on third-and-12, third-and-8, third-and-2 (which was stuffed), and third-and-10 (which they converted). They also called a bubble screen to Isaiah Zuber on third-and-19 that was stopped short.
Not that they should have any faith in the passing offense. Newton, held under 175 passing yards for the fifth time in six games, still doesn’t see the field well and his throws are all over the place. He also has perhaps the worst group of receivers and tight ends in Bill Belichick’s 21-year tenure with the Patriots. All four of the receivers active on Sunday entered the NFL as undrafted free agents. And of course, the weather was a mess.
In the clearest sign that there is no faith, Belichick kicked a field goal on third down with 12 seconds left in the second quarter, even though there was plenty of time to take one more shot to the end zone. But Belichick clearly was scarred by the experience at the end of the first half in the Chiefs game, when the Patriots had no timeouts and took a sack.
“Felt like it was probably a low-percentage play,” Belichick said of not taking one more shot. “Ensure the 3 points.”
In other words, Belichick couldn’t trust Newton to not take a sack.
▪ Then again, it was probably smart to play it safe on a cold, windy day in Buffalo. The Patriots didn’t commit a turnover until Newton’s fumble on the final play of the game, after committing 11 in the previous three games. The Patriots clearly don’t have much of an offense, but they can be competitive each week as long as they don’t turn over the ball over.
▪ There will be plenty of second-guessing of Belichick’s decision to call a surprise onside kick at the end of the third quarter after the Patriots tied the score, 14-14. The Patriots had momentum, and had just stopped the Bills in a three-and-out on the previous possession.
“We were trying to make a positive play,” was Belichick’s only explanation.
The gamble didn’t work out, and the Bills promptly marched 45 yards for a touchdown.
I don’t mind the move — the Patriots are struggling on offense, they probably needed to steal a possession, and a surprise onside kick has a higher chance of being recovered than a regular onside kick. That said, it’s curious that Belichick would take that gamble, but wouldn’t take a shot at the end zone in the second quarter.
▪ Great bounce-back day for the offensive line, which had four of five starters in the lineup (everyone but the right tackle). On a day in which everyone knew the Patriots had nothing in the passing game, they still rushed for 188 yards (5.5 average), including 22 for 144 yards in the second half. Shaq Mason and Jakob Johnson had great blocks on Damien Harris’s 22-yard touchdown run.
Harris runs hard and decisively, and finished with 16 carries for 102 yards. He should remain the starting running back when Sony Michel returns (he was just activated off injured reserve). And Newton ran well, rushing nine times for 54 yards and his sixth touchdown of the season. But the fumble was inexcusable, his sixth turnover in three games since returning from COVID-19.
▪ The final stat sheet says the Patriots only took five penalties for 35 yards, but they committed several uncharacteristic ones against the Bills. The Patriots entered the game with just three offensive penalties all season, but took five on Sunday (four accepted).
Newton’s delay-of-game penalty was the first by the offense since Jimmy Garoppolo took one in Week 1 of 2016 (Tom Brady hadn’t taken one since 2015). Jakobi Meyers had a false start and Damiere Byrd was called for illegal formation. Meyers had two nice gains wiped out by penalties to Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason. And defensively, the usually reliable Devin McCourty jumped offside on third-and-4 to give the Bills a first down.
The Patriots also burned a timeout coming off one of the offensive penalties, and Ryan Izzo whiffed on a block that led to a sack of Newton. The Patriots looked like a team that needed more practice.
▪ Boy, was the run defense terrible. The Bills entered the game ranked 29th in rushing yards per game (97), and 24th in yards per carry (3.9). The most yards they had rushed for all season was 126 last week against the Jets.
But the Bills ran all over the Patriots like the days of O.J. Simpson, rushing 38 times for 190 yards and all three of their touchdowns. The Bills picked up 40 yards on two runs in the first quarter when Adrian Phillips and McCourty both whiffed badly on tackles. Ja’Whaun Bentley hit Zack Moss at the 6-yard line, but still allowed Moss to scamper into the end zone in the third quarter.
Josh Allen’s touchdown run early in the fourth quarter was embarrassing — defensive tackle Nick Thurman fell down, and the Patriots had no one else in the middle of the defense. And on that touchdown drive, the Bills ran the ball on all nine plays, but the Patriots couldn’t stop them.
This front seven is a mess, and I’m not sure it’s fixable this year.
▪ The weather was certainly a factor, but Belichick still owns Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who completed just 11-of-18 passes for 154 yards and an interception by J.C. Jackson. In four career games, Allen has three touchdown passes and six picks.
More Patriots coverage
- As it happened: Late Cam Newton fumble paves way for Bills to hand Patriots fourth straight loss
- For Damien Harris, his strong showing doesn’t make up for a Patriots loss
- Patriots' J.C. Jackson moved into the No. 1 cover spot and put his skills on display
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.