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Jim McBride | Between the hash marks

Patriots’ season ends in a familiar place — in Buffalo — but with a mind-numbing breakdown on special teams

Nyheim Hines electrified Highmark Stadium with a 96-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Deja blue.

For the second straight season, the Patriots’ season came to a cold and bitter end in this Western New York hamlet that doubles as a Mafia metropolis on days the Bills play.

Led by their kingpin, Josh Allen, and sterling special teams play, the Bills dismissed the Patriots — and knocked them out of the playoff picture — with a 35-23 win in front of an emotional, packed house at Highmark Stadium Sunday.

New England (8-9) put up a fight and briefly led, 17-14, in the third quarter before Nyheim Hines delivered a coldcock, knockout blow.


Hines scored his second touchdown on a kick return after the Patriots had taken the lead, simultaneously whipping the crowd into a frenzy and taking the wind out of the Patriots’ sails.

It was a double dip for Hines, who raced through and around New England’s coverage unit on the opening kickoff to give the Bills a 7-0 lead just 14 seconds in.

For a team, crowd, and region dealing with Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s medical condition the past week, it was the perfect start.

For a franchise known for its special teams excellence over the past two decades, it was particularly jarring.

“It’s very hard to process,” said Matthew Slater. “I’ve been playing this game a long time and I’ve never been a part of something like that. It’s obviously very disappointing. As the captain of that unit, I feel we cost the team the game. So, it’s very difficult.”

Asked to explain how the breakdowns happened, an emotional Slater was blunt.

“We’ve just got to do a better job of using our hands to get off blocks,” he said. “It comes down to fundamentals. You’ve got to be able to shed blocks. You’ve got to be able to diagnose the return … It’s very disappointing when it shows up in this setting.”


Gallant in defeat

The Patriots showed plenty of resolve, answering 7-point deficits twice on a pair of Mac Jones touchdown passes to even the score at 14 at halftime.

Nick Folk’s 24-yard field goal gave New England its only lead, and even when Buffalo scored 14 straight to take a 28-17 lead, the Patriots stayed in it with DeVante Parker’s second touchdown to cut it to 28-23 early in the fourth quarter.

Allen sealed the affair with a 49-yard perfectly placed bomb to Stefon Diggs, who was actually covered well by Jonathan Jones. Allen’s pass was just that good.

The Patriots’ comebacks were thwarted by three second-half interceptions, none of which really could be pegged on Mac Jones. Nelson Agholor slowed his route on the first, and the second and third were deflections off Jones’s receivers’ hands.

“It’s frustrating because, like the offense was moving,” said running back Damien Harris (13 carries, 48 yards). “It just hurts to lose. I hate losing. It’s kind of hard for me to even recall some of the plays right now just because it’s just an emotional time and I wish we could have done more to win today.”

Support for Hamlin everywhere

The pregame scene featured many signs of support for Hamlin. Players and coaches, from both teams, embraced frequently and many, including Bill Belichick, wore shirts that read “Love for Damar.”

The message of Love for Damar was everywhere at Highmark Stadium.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

“One positive of everything was just being able to be here in this atmosphere and to see the love and just all the emotions and everybody coming together for Damar, praying for him all week and wishing him a speedy recovery,” said Harris. “We’re all glad he’s doing better and even though it wasn’t the outcome that we wanted, I felt special being able to wear a T-shirt with his name and number on it just to support him.”


Comeback players?

Harris is one of many Patriots whose future is up in the air as he is in the final year of his contract. He said he’d “love” to be back. “I know this is a business and I know this organization is going to do what they feel is best for them and at the end of the day, I’ve got to do what I feel like is best for me. So, we’ll see what happens,” he said … Wide receiver Jakobi Meyers, another looming free agent, said he’d “definitely” like to be back … Cornerback Jonathan Jones said he hasn’t really thought about next year.

Matthew Slater (left) and Devin McCourty (right), shown here earlier in the season, could have played their final games for the Patriots on Sunday.Chris Unger/Getty

Finale for emotional McCourty, Slater?

It was a very emotional postgame scene for Slater and safety Devin McCourty, the longtime veterans who have indicated they’ve thought about retirement but haven’t made any decisions.

Speaking through tears, Slater said McCourty has meant more to him “than any teammate I’ve had” in his 15-year career. “It didn’t hit me until sitting there and [the Bills are] taking a knee, just the emotions, everything that comes in,” said McCourty, who had an interception and a fumble recovery. “Everything you go through in a season and not knowing your future. I just said to myself today to just go out there and give it my all and see where it got me.”


2023 opponents set

With the regular season in the books, the Patriots’ 2023 opponents have been finalized.

The home slate: Bills, Dolphins, Jets, Chiefs, Chargers, Colts, Eagles, Commanders, and Saints.

The road schedule: Bills, Dolphins, Jets, Broncos, Raiders, Cowboys, Giants, and Steelers.

There’s also a strong possibility one of New England’s games will be played in Europe.

Jake Bailey was suspended for the final game of the season, much to his agent's surprise.Greg M. Cooper/Associated Press

Bailey plot thickens

Suspended punter Jake Bailey was not eligible to play. Belichick disagreed with Bailey’s agent, who tweeted Saturday that Bailey’s suspension came as a surprise. Bailey’s agent said the punter was hoping to return from injured reserve.

When asked about it, Belichick said, “He was on designated to return and wasn’t able to play. The suspension was a whole other thing.”

Milestone for Stevenson

Rhamondre Stevenson rushed for 54 yards and finished the season with a career-high 1,040. He is the first Patriot to reach that milestone since LeGarrette Blount (1,161) in 2016 … Hines is the first player with two kickoff return TDs in a game since Seattle’s Leon Washington in 2010 … Brenden Schooler missed his first game as the rookie was a game-day inactive because of a hip injury suffered last week against the Dolphins. Schooler, who was undrafted out of Texas, excelled on special teams, collecting 14 tackles and a pair of fumble recoveries in the kicking game. The other New England inactives: running back Kevin Harris, safety Joshuah Bledsoe, defensive lineman Sam Roberts, cornerbacks Shaun Wade and Jalen Mills, and tight end Jonnu Smith.


Rhamondre Stevenson reached the 1,000 rushing yard mark on Sunday, becoming the first Patriots rusher in six years to reach the threshold.Timothy T Ludwig/Getty

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Jim McBride can be reached at james.mcbride@globe.com. Follow him @globejimmcbride.