In the forlorn aftermath, it might not feel like it, but what happened at Highmark Stadium was the best possible outcome for the Patriots. I’m not referencing the team; the players who emptied their tank for 17 games are rightfully crushed. But it’s the unavoidable reality check this organization and its haughty hierarchy needed.
It would’ve been too easy for coach Bill Belichick to just slough off the issues and flaws his team and sycophant-filled coaching staff endured this season if the Patriots moonwalked into the playoffs. The season slogan would’ve been “And they all fall down.” Now, the bitter feeling of having their nose pressed against the playoff glass should motivate Belichick — and his bosses, the Krafts — to initiate the necessary changes.
It should spur them to stop fooling themselves about what they are now on the NFL food chain, parasites feeding off bad teams and bad quarterbacks.
Like many older folks, the 70-year Belichick has begun to value familiarity over efficiency. Belichick told Dan Shaughnessy before this season commenced four months ago that if his coaching staff decisions didn’t work put the blame on him. He used his considerable cachet to write the check of putting Matt Patricia and Joe Judge in charge of the offense. It’s time to pay off that decision-making debt, and then for Belichick to do what he does best — fix football problems.
That starts with bringing in a creditable offensive coach to develop quarterback Mac Jones and redeploying Patricia and Judge to roles they’re better suited for.
Belichick chalked up last year’s ignominious, season-ending, blowout playoff loss to Buffalo as an anomaly. He can’t do that after this year’s season-sign-off, a 35-23 defeat to a Bills team inspired by the remarkable recovery of teammate Damar Hamlin, who suffered on-field cardiac arrest six days earlier in Cincinnati.
It’s also time to recognize that blanket “In Bill, We Trust” is a trite notion based on the false premise that a coach can be the cornerstone of a perennial winner. Since Tom Brady departed, the Patriots have missed the playoffs twice in three seasons and posted two losing records after having none from 2001 to 2019.
The Patriots have lost five of six to Bills uber-QB Josh Allen, the reigning signal-caller seigneur of the AFC East. The lone win in 2021 came when Belichick’s strokes of genius were wind-aided by Mother Nature.
Sunday’s loss put the nail in New England’s season and cemented they can’t beat elite quarterbacks. The 8-9 Patriots didn’t beat a single upper-echelon QB. Where’s Skylar Thompson or Sam Ehlinger when you need him? You don’t deserve to make the playoffs when Jared Goff is the biggest feather in the Foxborough cap.
Truthfully, Allen wasn’t even at his best, and he got the best of the Patriots again, completing 19 of 31 passes for 254 yards with three touchdowns, an interception, and a 106.1 QB rating. Allen has thrown 18 TD passes and one interception in his last six games vs. Belichick. He is Buffalo’s karmic payback for Brady’s torment.
They were football foils in a feel-good story. The whole world outside of partial Pats Country was rooting for the Bills in the wake of Hamlin’s horrifying injury. The game got off to a fairytale start for Buffalo and a nightmarish one for New England when Nyheim Hines took the opening kickoff 96 yards for a score.
It should not be lost that the Patriots lost in Orchard Park, N.Y., because of an area of the game Belichick prizes and prioritizes — special teams. That had to be like sucking down sour milk for His Hoodiness.
The Patriots offense actually produced more points than Buffalo’s ballyhooed unit (23-21). However, the Patriots allowed a pair of kickoff return touchdowns to Hines, the second coming after they took a brief 17-14 lead.
“I’ve been playing this game a long time and never been a part of anything like that. As the captain of that unit, I feel like we cost the team the game,” said special teams captain and longest-tenured Patriot Matthew Slater, who displayed the mien of a man who had played his last NFL game.
It’s even tougher to accept with the knowledge that Judge, one of the best special teams coaches in the game during his first stint here, is busy overseeing Jones’s second-year slide instead of special teams.
Special teams coach Cameron Achord is a definite downgrade. Since 2021, the Patriots have surrendered four blocked punts, most in the NFL.
If two-thirds of the three phases are deficient in coaching and execution it’s impossible to be a playoff team.
It’s a testament to the Patriots defense, which carried the team all season, that they were even in a win-and-you’re-in game on Sunday.
It’s not a coincidence the Patriots lost a game in which their streak of four consecutive contests with a defensive score was snapped. The defense forced two of Buffalo’s three turnovers, including a red-zone interception by safety Devin McCourty, who also could be earmarked for retirement.
It wasn’t enough with Allen torching them for a pair of 40-plus-yard TD passes on consecutive possessions spanning the third and fourth quarters.
Since Mac joined the Patriots they’re 0-12 (an apropos number) when opponents score 25 points or more.
“As a quarterback, I just put the blame on me because it’s my offense. It’s my group of guys. We have to put a better product out there, and it starts with me,” said Jones.
That’s magnanimous, Mac. Honestly, the Patriots offense played one of its best games of the season and so did Mac. However, their collective issues in the red zone reared its head in the second half (0 for 2 with a red zone pick) after going 2 for 2 in the first half.
Jones started 13 of 15 with two touchdowns. He finished 26 of 40 for 243 yards with a season-best three TDs and three interceptions.
Ultimately, Belichick and the organization got what they deserved.
“I’m proud of the way our guys competed and prepared, but in the end, collectively, players, coaches, it just wasn’t good enough [Sunday],” said Belichick, who stiff-armed queries about offseason adjustments.
The truth is it never had a chance to be good enough.
The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging you have one.
Read more from Patriots-Bills
- Instant analysis: Patriots came to play, but season-long problems haunt them in loss to Bills
- Dan Shaughnessy: The Patriots were not going to beat the inspired Bills, not on this day, as Buffalo honored Damar Hamlin
- Patriots’ season ends in a familiar place — in Buffalo — but with a mind-numbing breakdown on special teams
- How it happened: Patriots’ season ends after allowing two kick returns for TDs in 35-23 loss to Buffalo
- See the 2023 NFL playoff schedule
- With the Patriots’ season over, we now know who they play next year. See their 2023 opponents.
- Damar Hamlin’s recovery is something to celebrate in Buffalo — and they’re certainly celebrating
- Bill Belichick stays mum on curious Jake Bailey, Jack Jones suspensions
- While these Patriots remain focused on this season, changes are inevitable moving forward
- ‘This one was extremely special’ sums up the Bills’ Damar Hamlin-inspired win over the Patriots
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.