FOXBOROUGH — Here was Josh Allen in the second quarter Thursday night, running for his life toward the Patriot sideline, Patriots’ linebacker Mack Wilson nipping at his heels. Allen was running out of real estate, and it sure looked like the Bills’ burly quarterback was about to get pushed out of bounds and the Patriots’ defense was about to deny him a key third-down conversion, forcing Buffalo’s high-flying offense to settle for a field goal.
Against the mighty Bills, that’s considered progress.
But Allen, who is making quite a career out of defying expectations, lifted his feet off the ground just in time to let the ball fly, a midair throw that went across his body and into the hands of Gabe Davis in the end zone. It was yet another example of Allen doing Allen things, like the scramble and 21-yard flick pass he’d completed to Nyheim Hines on an earlier scoring drive, like the 7-yard rumble to the 1-yard line that set up a fourth-quarter TD, like the blows and tackles he consistently absorbed across Buffalo’s decisive 24-10 win.
If he and his Bills are the yardstick the Patriots were waiting for to get the truest read on this season, consider this an abject failure for New England. Buffalo is miles ahead of where the Patriots are, with statistical evidence evident in 22 first downs to 14, 72 plays to 51, 355 total yards to 242 and 38-plus minutes of possession to 21:52.
“Not really too much to say here, just couldn’t do enough tonight,” coach Bill Belichick mumbled afterwards. “Had some opportunities, but couldn’t do enough.”
The numbers were bad, but worse than any single statistic or any single play by Allen, or even any head-scratching decision by Belichick and his crack offensive staff (if you watched the last sequence of the first half, when the Pats turned a sack and forced fumble by Josh Uche into a couple of clouds of dust and a missed field goal, wasted time outs included, you know what I mean) is the alarming new reality shaping the Patriots’ AFC East future. The division they used to own is theirs no more, with Buffalo, Miami, and even the Jets all crowding into their space.
Buffalo is the biggest beast, with an obvious talent gap between the two teams that shows no sign of closing any time soon. The Bills have the Patriots’ number the way we are used to seeing the Patriots have the Jets’ number.
No, this wasn’t as bad as the 47-17 thumping the Bills put on New England in last season’s wild card game. And yes, the Patriots’ defense finally forced the Bills to punt (for the first time in 23 drives spanning three games, according to ESPN Stats & Information). And the defense, despite being left on the field far too long for any defense to outlast an offense like the Bills, never let this one turn into a blowout.
But none of that changes the truths exposed on Thursday night.
“Allen is a different kind of player. They’re an explosive team,” receiver Kendrick Bourne said. “But we were only down 10 [for most of the game]. Compared to last year, they had no Von Miller, no Micah Hyde, we’ve got to take advantage of those things. They were more soft, conservative, and we have to take advantage, not just 5-yard throws, but attack and put pressure on the defense. As players, we got to start making the tougher plays.”
The offense couldn’t do it, not with too many more of those unexplainable, uncharacteristic Patriot moments.
The drive that ended with Allen’s crossbody touchdown? Set up by a three-and-out that was as ugly as it was costly. A rush for minus-1 yard. A second-down mess with a holding call on rookie lineman Cole Strange that was declined by Buffalo in favor of an intentional grounding call on QB Mac Jones, pushing the Pats to a 3rd-and-18 at their own 1-yard line. Then a thrilling run by Rhamondre Stevenson that went for an agonizing 17 yards, a just-miss effort that was topped off by a delay of game penalty before the ensuing punt, a gaffe that essentially handed the Bills five free yards on Michael Palardy’s 44-yard punt.
The Pats were no better after that touchdown, another three-and-out that didn’t net a single yard, a 1:23 possession that brought a gassed defense back on the field. When the carnage was finally over, the only positive memory was the surprise emergence of Marcus Jones as an offensive weapon. The rookie who already won the Pats a game with his special teams prowess on a walk-off punt return, took a first-quarter screen pass from Mac Jones and outraced the Bills defense 48 yards to the end zone, putting his team up, 7-3.
It was the first offensive touch of the season for Marcus Jones
It was the last time the Patriots would lead in the game.
It was just about their last offensive gasp, too, the slim lead erased by the end of the next possession, when Allen polished off a 9-play, 82-yard drive with an 8-yard TD to Stefon Diggs. For New England, from there until a field goal with 1:53 left in the game — the sad conclusion of a 17-play drive that covered only 57 yards — they were shut out on offense.
And shut down yet again by the new beast of the east.
Read more about the Patriots-Bills game:
• McBride: A closer look at how the Bills completely overwhelmed the Patriots
• Volin: A lame loss to the Bills exposed the Patriots’ flawed offseason
• Mac Jones explains his sideline rant
• The Patriots turned to defensive back Marcus Jones to score their only TD
• Finn: In the ultimate compliment, the Bills put on a Patriot-like performance
• Gasper: The Marcus Jones touchdown was a neat trick, but it also showed the Patriots’ offense is a disaster
• How it happened: Bills dominate Patriots once again, roll to convincing victory
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.