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Dan Shaughnessy

As they ready for Bills again, Patriots look like an average, undisciplined team that can’t play from behind

Patriots quarterback Mac Jones fumbled the snap in the third quarter, his second turnover of the game.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The Patriots are returning to the playoffs for the first time since Tom Brady left town. Saturday night — playing in Buffalo — the Patriots hope to win their first playoff game since Brady won Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta three years ago.

The bad news is that the Pats are stumbling into the postseason with three losses in four games, including Sunday’s 33-24 beatdown in Miami Gardens, Fla., against the no-playoff Dolphins.

“We didn’t do anything well,’’ mumbled Patriots coach Bill Belichick in his postgame news conference. “Just too many mistakes . . . Wasn’t good enough today. Just leave it at that . . . Lot of poor execution, poor coaching, poor playing.’’

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Just a few weeks ago, the upstart Patriots and rookie quarterback Mac Jones were the top seed in the AFC and there was lofty talk about Belichick vs. Brady in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles Feb. 13. There were pie-in-the-sky hopes for an emotionally charged, New England-centric championship battle featuring our unique mix of history and revenge.

But all of that great feeling is gone after what we’ve seen the last month. Life Without Tom is just as hard as we feared it was going to be. The rookie-led Patriots of 2021 enjoyed a midseason seven-game winning streak, but finished the regular season looking like an average, undisciplined team that can’t play from behind. Late in the season, New England’s Kid Jones was exposed while Benjamin Button Brady threw a whopping 43 touchdown passes for the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who finished 13-4.

The Patriots’ regular-season finale was a rock fight in Hard Rock Stadium, an all-too-typical demonstration of how the Patriots lose their way when they play in the Sunshine State in December/January (2-9 since Belichick was hired in 2000). The Pats fell behind, 17-0, Jones threw his third pick-6 of the season, and lost a fumble on a bad exchange of the center snap in the second half.

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“It was super-embarrassing how I played,” said Jones. “It starts with me . . . You never want those things to happen . . . We just have to play with better execution out there. That wasn’t how we wanted to play the game.’’

New England fell behind, 27-10, with 11 minutes left in the game and rallied for a couple of late touchdowns, but the vaunted Patriot defense could not get the Dolphins off the field in the final two minutes and Belichick’s men succumbed.

As they scrambled to get out of Southern Florida, the Pats took special interest in the NFL’s final game of the day; a Sunday night special featuring the Chargers vs. the Raiders at Las Vegas.

We won’t be hearing the “We’re on to Cincinnati” mantra that Belichick beat to death during the 2014 Super Bowl championship season after a hideous early season loss in Kansas City. The Raiders beat the Chargers in a wild one, sending the Pats to Orchard Park, N.Y., for a rubber match against the AFC East champion Bills. The Patriots beat the Bills in a crossfire hurricane Dec. 6, a game in which Jones threw only three passes. Twenty days later the Patriots were manhandled at home by the Bills, losing, 33-21.

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The Patriots’ victory at Buffalo on “Monday Night Football” was probably the highlight of the 2021 regular season. It capped New England’s win streak at seven consecutive and re-established the genius of Belichick — who’d been taking a PR beating after letting Tom go and watching Brady win a Super Bowl in Tampa.

It was all downhill for the Pats after the win in Orchard Park. Coming out of their bye week, the Pats were thoroughly beaten by both Indianapolis and Buffalo. The Patriots came back to annihilate the lowly Jaguars in Foxborough last weekend, but seemed too happy with themselves during, and after, the easy win. Sunday’s letdown in Florida underscored the flaws of this team and re-enforced their image as frontrunners. The Patriots are good when everything’s easy. It’s the hard stuff that brings them down.

When captain/leader Devin McCourty was asked if he felt this team was ready for the playoffs, he answered, “We don’t have any choice. The playoffs are next week . . . We won’t win if we play like this . . . Bad football.’’

“We need to play clean football,” added Belichick. “We’re not doing it now.’’

When Jones takes the field Saturday night for wild-card weekend at Buffalo, he will be the first Patriot quarterback not named Brady to start a playoff game since radio yakker Scott Zolak started against the Jaguars in a first-round loss in Jacksonville in 1999. Brady played 41 playoff games for Belichick, winning seven Super Bowls. There was constant comfort going into those games. We always knew that Tom would somehow prevail.

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Now it’s a rookie named Jones and no one knows what to expect.

More Patriots-Dolphins coverage

Chad Finn: Too much familiar in Patriots’ latest loss at Miami, and none of it good

How the Patriots’ season-finale loss to the Dolphins unfolded

NFL Black Monday: Who’s out, and who’s on the hot seat?

See the NFL playoff schedule

The latest on Christian Barmore’s injury suffered late in the game

‘Just too many mistakes.’ Here’s what Bill Belichick had to say after the Patriots’ loss to the Dolphins



Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at daniel.shaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.