A few parting thoughts on their season’s suspense-free ending while wondering whether the Patriots would have beaten the Steelers . . .
▪ OK, we’ve had a couple of days to think about this, and here’s the conclusion: The Bills’ 47-17 throttling Saturday night was not the most thorough postseason beatdown I’ve ever seen. That achievement still belongs to the 1999 Jaguars, who ended Dan Marino’s career with a 62-7 win over the Dolphins in the divisional round.
The Jaguars sacked the sessile Marino and Damon Huard five times, forced seven turnovers, and led, 24-0 after the first quarter and 41-7 at halftime. It was just plain mean. I remember you could tell the Jaguars had broken the Dolphins’ spirit when Marino stopped giving his patented death stare at his receivers and linemen.
No, what the Bills did to the Patriots was deliver the most efficient beatdown in NFL playoff history, though it should go without saying that this was considerably less painful than the soul-crushing humiliation of the 46-10 loss to the Bears in Super Bowl XX.
The Bills never punted, never committed an offensive penalty, never faced a fourth down, and scored touchdowns on their first seven possessions. They played as close to a perfect offensive game as a team can.
Can’t complain about them “running up the score” or whatever, either; it’s on the Patriots to stop them. After 20 years of frequently playing the role of the Washington Generals to the Patriots’ Globetrotters, that was what catharsis looked like.
▪ So what’s the offseason wish list? I’d prioritize their needs in this order: speed at linebacker, a high-quality, immediately playable receiver, and depth in the defensive backfield.
Dont’a Hightower has been an extraordinary Patriot, the equal of and perhaps even the superior to Tedy Bruschi. He made at least one absolutely essential, we-don’t-win-without-this play in the Super Bowl comebacks against the Seahawks (the goal-line tackle of Marshawn Lynch) and Falcons (sack of Matt Ryan and forced fumble).
But Josh Allen and Devin Singletary too often made him look like a pedestrian trying to run across Storrow Drive as they zipped by. It’s probably time for a younger upgrade.
▪ It’s easy to lament when a young player the Patriots passed up in the draft succeeds elsewhere, even if it was understandably unlikely at the time of the draft that they would select him. (Dez Bryant and Lamar Jackson being two examples.). But it’s different with Deebo Samuel, the Niners’ electrifying receiver and runner.
Virtually everyone thought the Patriots would take Samuel in the first round of the 2019 draft, including Samuel himself. After he interviewed with and worked out for the Patriots, he posted a message on Instagram that said, “Hey Billy, I’ll see you in a month, my man.”
It’s unfathomable now that Bill Belichick would choose N’Keal Harry over him. It was pretty close to unfathomable then, too.
▪ The Patriots couldn’t have botched the top of that ‘19 draft more if they were trying to. Samuel went to the Niners in the second round (No. 36 overall), four picks after the Harry selection completed the first and nine picks before the Patriots traded up to take cornerback Joejuan Williams at No. 45.
Williams has done next to nothing as a Patriot, recording 44 tackles in 36 games without an interception, fumble recovery, or sack. His presence on the field for a career-high 41 defensive snaps Saturday did a nice job of confirming how much Jalen Mills was missed for that one game, how much Stephon Gilmore is missed overall, and how much help they need to add.
▪ James White’s season-ending injury in Week 3 ranks as the Patriots’ most lamented player loss this season, and with good reason. He had already built a rapport with Mac Jones, catching six passes in each of the first two games, and would have been a far more reliable third-down option than the willing but limited Brandon Bolden.
But you know who else the Patriots really missed? Jonathan Jones. The slot corner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 6 against the Cowboys. Myles Bryant had his moments in Jones’s absence, but Allen and the Bills slapped a bull’s-eye on him in the last two meetings.
▪ The biggest disappointment during the Patriot’s 1-4 finish was Matthew Judon’s decline from legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate to someone who would have been invisible if not for his red sleeves.
In the last five games, he had 12 tackles, one QB hit, and no sacks. He had to be affected by something, whether it was an injury or the unpredictable effects of contracting COVID-19 twice in 14 months. (He first had it with the Ravens in November 2020.)
▪ Every Patriots fan should come away from this season feeling good about Mac Jones’s future. Yes, his physical ceiling is lower than some of the other young quarterbacks in the AFC, but his accuracy is pinpoint and his command of the offense is only going to grow.
The final numbers — 3,801 yards, 22 touchdown passes against 13 interceptions, 67.6 completion percentage, and 10 wins — exceeded the expectations back in August, when some of us still thought the job would be Cam Newton’s.
As disappointing as the ending was, the Patriots achieved their most important task this season. They found a good young quarterback.