FOXBOROUGH — Last year, the Patriots entered their bye week atop the AFC with a 9-4 record. Rookie Mac Jones looked like their next franchise quarterback. Coach Bill Belichick appeared to have bounced back after a down 2020 season, the first following the departure of Tom Brady. The Patriots seemed on their way to becoming contenders again.
Then the Patriots lost three of their final four games. They still advanced to the playoffs, as the conference’s sixth seed, only to get humiliated, 47-17, in the wild-card round by the second-seeded Bills, who scored touchdowns on all of their offensive drives.
The two teams met Thursday night at Gillette Stadium for the first time since that drubbing. Buffalo’s 24-10 victory may not sound as oppressive, but the gap between the Patriots and the Bills is still just as glaring.
Whatever mirage the Patriots had built through the first three-quarters of last season has been shattered for some time. They are nowhere near contention. That much is obvious.
But where do they go from here?
There’s still an outside chance they can reach the postseason. Say they end up sneaking in as the AFC’s seventh seed. Then what? They lose in the wild-card round, end up with the 19th overall pick in the draft, make a few offseason moves, and run it back?
What’s much more likely is the Patriots miss out on the postseason for the second time in three years. Then what? They end up with the 16th pick in the draft, make a few offseason moves, and run it back?
Playoff berth or not, it’s clear that the team is in need of serious changes.
The offense, led by the tandem of senior football adviser Matt Patricia and assistant Joe Judge, is dysfunctional. The Patriots rank near the bottom of the league in multiple key statistics: yards per game (318.9, 25th), offensive touchdowns per game (1.8, t-25th), third-down conversion (36.1 percent, 27th), and red zone conversion (37.5 percent, t-31st).
The head-scratching plays from Thursday’s game alone are aplenty. How was there a miscommunication leading to a botched handoff on the third play of the game, forcing the Patriots to go three-and-out on their opening possession? How could the Patriots take a delay of game from deep inside their own territory? Why did the two-minute offense burn two timeouts in order to gain 2 yards over 18 seconds?
The offense looks largely directionless, with blunders across the board, from clock management to execution to play-calling to discipline. Jones has regressed. So have the majority of the skill-position players not named Rhamondre Stevenson.
The passing attack seemed amiss as early as training camp, so it’s certainly jarring that the Patriots have yet to establish some consistency despite insisting they would figure things out. Now, 13 weeks in, the messaging is the same.
“Just keep working through it,” Bill Belichick said Friday morning. “There’s no magic wand here.”
Things are better on the defensive side, but how the unit finishes out the season will be telling. The defense faltered down the stretch last year and is at risk of doing so again, with multiple top-tier receivers remaining on the schedule. If Justin Jefferson and Stefon Diggs are any indication, the Patriots will have trouble containing DeAndre Hopkins, Davante Adams, Ja’Marr Chase, and Tyreek Hill.
“We’ve got some time,” said safety Devin McCourty. “We need to try to regroup, reset, figure some things out, and decide what the rest of our season is going to be.”
Added outside linebacker Matthew Judon, “It’s not over yet, right? We’re 6-6. We have more games to play. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go out there and we’re going to play. We have to put this one behind us.”
Judon may not want to declare the season over, but it already feels that way. Up next is a Western trip featuring two more prime time games: Monday night against Arizona and Sunday night against Las Vegas.
If the Patriots manage to return with two wins, then talk of advancing to the postseason will be back on. But they have made it clear through 13 weeks that significant changes need to happen regardless.
Read more about the Patriots-Bills game:
- McBride: A closer look at how the Bills completely overwhelmed the Patriots
- Sullivan: The Patriots couldn’t hang with the new beasts of the AFC East
- 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