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christopher l. gasper

Patriots aren’t an intimidating opponent in the playoffs this time

Patriots linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley trudges off the field Sunday after the Patriots' third loss in four games.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The Patriots are stumbling into the playoffs like a besotted bar patron on a bender. They’re in the right place, but it looks unfamiliar without a franchise quarterback to lean on. And who knows how long they’ll stick around before getting tossed?

The Miami Dolphins served up a sobering dose of reality to rookie Mac Jones and the Patriots, defeating them, 33-24, in Sunday’s regular-season finale, though it didn’t save Brian Flores’s job. Now, Bill Belichick & Co. have to face up to another fact as they face the Buffalo Bills for a third time: For the first time in 20 years, they’re going to play a postseason game without the comfort of feeling they have the best quarterback on the field.

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Their designated driver has a scarlet R on his chest for rookie instead of the Superman S of Tom Brady.

You have to travel back to Super Bowl XXXVI to find the last time Belichick entered a playoff game with a definitive quarterback disadvantage on paper. Back then, Brady was still a Cinderella signal-caller, and Kurt Warner was the Robo-QB league MVP. We all know how that turned out. The Patriots can only hope for the same result Saturday night in Orchard Park, N.Y., against Josh Allen, who lit up the Patriots the last time the teams played.

The Patriots will try and slow Josh Allen in Saturday's playoff opener.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Either way, the Foxborough Fear Factor is gone. You imagine Bills coach Sean McDermott, winner of back-to-back AFC East titles and three of the last four games against the Patriots, giving his team the “Rocky IV” speech about Belichick, the Ivan Drago of coaches. “He’s a man. He’s not a machine.”

The Patriots’ remotely competent division rivals have thrown off the yoke of domination. A division opponent swept them each of the last two seasons — Miami this year and Buffalo last season — after it didn’t happen from 2001-19.

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“I say it every year,” said Patriots captain Devin McCourty. “We always talk about what teams in the past have done. It’s really irrelevant to the current team. You know, those teams in the past had different players. And I think we can’t rely on that and bank on that.”

The Patriots have been reborn as a run-of-the-mill playoff team, capable of sublime play one week and disappointing the next, riding the roller coaster like everyone else. Their quarterback is a JAGG (Just Another Good Guy, a la Derek Carr or Jimmy Garoppolo) instead of the GOAT.

That’s the backdrop for the rubber match between Bills Mafia and the Mac Mafia. Belichick humiliated the Bills on their home field in a windswept win Dec. 6, passing the ball just three times. Buffalo and Allen returned the favor in a 33-21 victory at Gillette Stadium 20 days later as for the first time ever a Belichick-coached team failed to force a single punt.

No matter what happens Saturday, the Patriots can declare this season a success. Let’s get that out of the way. They found a capable quarterback and returned to the playoffs.

But they looked and sounded like a team resigned to their limitations after falling behind by 17 points twice in South Florida and being unable to get back up. It’s not fair to ask their rookie quarterback to bring them back and bail them out in such situations. We’ve seen that in similar setbacks against the Colts and Bills.

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Mac Jones will make his playoff debut Saturday against Buffalo.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The margin for error is supermodel-slim with Mac, who has posted a tremendous rookie season.

“You know, we have another performance like this, that’s it,” said McCourty bluntly.

Mature beyond his years, Jones is going to have to grow up even faster to combat a Buffalo pass defense that ranked first in the league in fewest passing yards allowed (163 per game), fewest TD passes (12), and opponent passer rating (65.3).

He needs to clean up his turnovers (two Sunday) and his bad body language. The latter was more disconcerting than the pick-6 he so hand-delivered to Xavien Howard it should’ve come with a gift basket.

Discouraged, he looked like a bullfighter simultaneously waving a red cape and a white flag, half-heartedly attempting to tackle Howard.

When things aren’t going the Patriots’ way, Jones projects dejection. He barked at Kendrick Bourne, Dan Marino-style, for missing a check and pouted when the Patriots had to burn a timeout because the play clock ran down. It’s an obvious tell to opponents.

Never let them see you sweat, kid.

It’s clear Jones is a different quarterback sans a cushy safety net of a lead. His final stats Sunday were respectable (20 of 30 for 261 yards). But a closer look reveals statistical cosmetic surgery that put a brighter face on a poor performance.

He finished the game 9 for 9 for 118 yards and a touchdown once the Dolphins started playing the clock and more conservative coverages. When the Patriots were down, 27-10, with 10:55 left in the fourth quarter, Jones was just 11 of 21 for 143 yards.

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Half of Jones’s 20 completions were to running backs (seven) or sideways throws to wide receivers (two screens to Bourne and the lateral throw to Jakobi Meyers on the final ill-fated play). These are gimme putt passes that speak to how he is managed.

Don’t believe me?

Study two third-and-long play calls. Late in the first half on third and 18, the Patriots threw a wide receiver screen to Bourne for 17 yards. Jones’s lone TD was a third-and 15 dump-off to Brandon Bolden out of the backfield on a pick play in the fourth quarter.

Mac Jones and Brandon Bolden celebrate an early touchdown against the Dolphins Sunday.Doug Murray/Associated Press

The Patriots haven’t won a game all season in which their opponent scored 25 points or more. Jones either must outduel Allen or bank on the defense badgering the Buffalo QB into mistakes.

Allen is certainly prone to making those. However, in his last four games against the Patriots, he’s 3-1 with eight touchdown passes, one interception, and a 101.7 rating while averaging 5 yards per rush.

Allen is the generic-brand version of Patrick Mahomes now.

So Mac will have to do much more than hand off this time if the Patriots are to continue.

The Patriots are back drinking up playoff football, but with a disorienting disadvantage.


Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at christopher.gasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.