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Ben Volin | Instant Analysis

Patriots came to play, but season-long problems haunt them in loss to Bills

The Patriots' first season with assistant coaches Matt Patricia (left) and Joe Judge back on the sideline ended without a playoff appearance.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Instant analysis from the Patriots’ 35-23 loss to the Bills Sunday:

▪ The Patriots certainly came to play on a day they weren’t given much of a chance. The offense moved the ball and Mac Jones had his best game of the season. The defense kept Josh Allen contained much of the day. And the Patriots did an admirable job of overcoming the emotions in the stadium, particularly after Nyheim Hines returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown.

Though, it was still too little, too late for a Patriots team that didn’t know how to win in the fourth quarter. Whether it was Kendrick Bourne dropping wide-open passes, Hunter Henry getting called for offensive pass interference or Jones recklessly throwing interceptions, the Patriots just couldn’t execute in crunch time to knock off the Bills and save their season.


This loss wasn’t embarrassing such as recent ones to the Raiders and Bengals. The Patriots acquitted themselves well, and gave the clearly superior Bills all they could handle.

But the loss also revealed the Patriots’ deficiencies. They don’t have enough high-end talent on offense. The quarterback is limited physically. The defense can’t beat good quarterbacks. And the special teams are a total mess.

The Patriots finished their season 8-9 and will miss the playoffs for the second time in three years. It’s the ending the Patriots deserve. It took them until Week 18 to play their best game of the season. They entered the season looking like a mediocre team with a questionable coaching setup, and that’s how the season played out.

The Bills' Nyheim Hines celebrated the first of his two kickoff returns for touchdowns, this one coming on the game's opening kickoff.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

▪ Matt Patricia and the offensive coaches have taken a lot of criticism, but special teams coordinator Cameron Achord has to be on the hot seat with yet another poor performance.

The Patriots didn’t allow a kickoff return touchdown between the 2015-21 seasons, but allowed two to Hines, and three this season. Hines became the 11th player in history, and first since 2010, to return two kickoffs for a score in the same game. At one point the Bills had just 163 yards of offense, but led, 21-17, because of 197 yards gained by Hines.


The Patriots also continued their horrid punting, with Michael Palardy bonking one just 28 yards and negating to pin the Bills deep. The Patriots were dead last in net punting average this season by a significant margin.

One move Bill Belichick absolutely must make this offseason is putting Joe Judge back in charge of special teams.

▪ Give the Patriots’ offense a lot of credit for coming out with an aggressive attack. Jones had his first three-touchdown game of the season. Sunday’s game marked just the second time this season the Patriots scored two touchdowns in the first half (also the Bears game), and the first time with Jones at quarterback. Jones had his best first half all season, completing 13 of 16 passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns, leading two 74-yard scoring drives.

The offensive line did a great job of keeping Jones clean, Patricia did a nice job of staying aggressive — the Patriots called a pass on 26 of their first 39 plays — and Patricia finally called play-action passes. Jones was 8 for 8 for 82 yards and a touchdown off play-action in the first half, his season highs. It’s baffling the Patriots didn’t call more play-action this season, because when they did, it worked.


Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White (27) hauls in an interception on a ball intended for Nelson Agholor.Joshua Bessex/Associated Press

▪ The Patriots looked as if they may have solved their season-long woes in the red zone. While they entered ranked last in the NFL in red zone touchdowns (41.5 percent), they went 2 for 2 in last week’s win over Miami and started 2 for 2 against the Bills.

But the Patriots’ inability to punch the ball across the goal line came back to haunt them in the second half. Jones killed momentum with a risky throw to Nelson Agholor, which was intercepted by Tre’Davious White at the 2-yard line. After the Patriots’ defense got the ball right back at the 11-yard line by recovering a fumble, Jones and the offense had to settle for a short field goal.

With the game, and the season, on the line, the Patriots went 0 for 2 in the red zone in the second half.

Matthew Judon and the Patriots defense kept the Bills' offense in check for most of three quarters.Timothy T Ludwig/Getty

▪ The Patriots’ defense created two turnovers and forced the Bills to punt a couple of times, unlike last season. But the defense couldn’t keep it up for 60 minutes, as the Bills scored on consecutive touchdown drives in the second half to seal the game.

The Patriots did an admirable job corralling Allen much of the day. At one point in the third quarter, he was just 12 for 21 for 96 yards, and had just 17 rushing yards. The Patriots also forced Allen into his fifth red zone interception of the season, which leads the NFL (no one else has more than three).


But Allen showed in the second half why he is such a unicorn, with two touchdown passes that no other quarterback other than Patrick Mahomes could make. Allen flicked a perfect floater on the run to John Brown for a 42-yard touchdown, and threw the ball 62 yards in the air on a perfect 49-yard touchdown to Stefon Diggs to ice the game.

Allen finished with 254 yards, three touchdowns and a pick, and improved to 6-1 against the Patriots since Tom Brady left New England. He’s going to be a problem for the Patriots for a long time.

▪ DeVante Parker missed the past three games with a concussion, and perhaps his presence was more important than we gave him credit for. Parker was the Patriots’ best playmaker at receiver, averaging 18.4 yards per catch, and he was a star Sunday. He caught six passes for 79 yards with two touchdowns, including an impressive 26-yard score on a jump ball over cornerback Kaiir Elam. Parker wasn’t a high-volume receiver this season, with just 31 catches, but he is the team’s best jump-ball wide receiver since Randy Moss.

If this was Devin McCourty's final NFL game, he went out in style with an interception and this fumble recovery.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

▪ If this was Devin McCourty’s last NFL game, he certainly made it count. McCourty, a 13-year veteran, intercepted Allen late in the second quarter in the red zone, then pounced on a fumble in the third quarter to give the Patriots the ball at the Bills’ 11-yard line. McCourty also made a terrific pass breakup in the end zone in the first half, covering a lot of ground to get over just in time.


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