ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — We are accustomed to everyone outside of New England rooting against the Patriots, but perhaps never more than on this final day of the 63rd Patriot season.
Bill Belichick’s uneven, oft-dysfunctional 2022 squad put up a good fight in its regular-season finale, and there were still pipe dreams of playoff possibilities as darkness came over Niagara Falls Sunday afternoon. But in the end, the Patriots were vanquished by an inspired and talented group, playing to honor and celebrate teammate Damar Hamlin, who almost died on the football field just six days earlier.
Bills 35, Patriots 23.
The Buffalo Bills simply were not going to lose on this day.
The 8-9 Patriots are out of the playoffs for the second time in only three seasons and only the fourth time since 2001. New England hasn’t won a postseason game since Tom Brady won a Super Bowl in Atlanta four years ago and we no doubt are in for an offseason of fear and loathing at Gillette. Frustrated Foxborough fans are already clamoring for change, imploring Bob Kraft to stop this post-Brady malaise.
Asked to assess this season, Belichick said, “We’ll deal with all that later.”
Swell. Put all that on the shelf for a moment and remind yourself that the Patriots’ problems don’t amount to a proverbial hill of beans compared with the inspiring national narrative of Hamlin, the city of Buffalo, and the never-champion Bills.
The Patriots might as well have been the Washington Generals in this finale. Virtually no one in NFL America cared about the postseason prospects of an offensively-challenged team with an 8-8 record.
No. This was about the 24-year-old young man in the hospital in Cincinnati. This was about a Bills team that has never won a Super Bowl. It was about an oft-maligned city where the sun rarely shines — a shot-and-a-beer, workingman’s town that has been visited by inordinate tragedy in the last calendar year.
How can anyone not root for these people to have some happiness in their lives? In May, Buffalo was the site of a racist massacre in which 10 people were murdered at a grocery store. Just last month, 44 people died during a generational blizzard in Western New York.
Last Monday, Buffalo folks sat in front of their televisions and watched Hamlin collapse and stop breathing after making a tackle in an “important” “Monday Night Football” game at Cincinnati. The game was halted (eventually canceled), and Hamlin’s teammates watched in horror as medical personnel miraculously brought him back to life.
Nobody cared much about football for the next couple of days. Then it was reported Thursday that Hamlin woke up and scribbled a note to doctors asking, “Did we win?”
He’s still in critical condition, but he face-timed with teammates Friday and delivered a tweet of thanks to America Saturday.
It is no exaggeration to say that Hamlin’s personal health crisis bridged emotions in a divided nation. The episode will forever remind us of the perils of this sport and the fragility of life. It can all be gone in an instant.
Late in the traumatic week, Bills quarterback Josh Allen said, “I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say some people are going to be changed forever after being on the field and witnessing that and feeling those emotions.”
Sunday was typically overcast and cool at Highmark Stadium. Hamlin signage and apparel peppered the premises. Commissioner Roger Goodell showed up wearing a Hamlin No. 3 cap and Belichick wore a “Love for Damar’' shirt under his Patriots parka.
Goodell told CBS Hamlin “united not just the NFL, but united this country.” Bills’ medical professionals were recognized before the national anthem and Hamlin tweeted a photo of himself watching the game with his family from his hospital bed.
We got a biblical sign from Above at the start when Bills return specialist Nyheim Hines caught Nick Folk’s kickoff and returned it 96 yards to the house to give the Bills a 7-0 lead. From Cincinnati, Hamlin immediately expressed his appreciation in a tweet that included 13 exclamation points.
On July 4, 1939, the New York Yankees beat the Washington Senators, 11-1, after Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech. The 1967 Red Sox swept the California Angels and won seven straight games after Tony Conigliaro was beaned and almost killed by Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton in August.
In this spirit, the Patriots were nothing but cardboard cutouts at Highmark.
Still, they put up a pretty good showing. Against a 13-3 team that beat them by an aggregate 106-50 in their last three meetings, the Patriots stayed with the Bills deep into the fourth quarter. Mac Jones (26-of-40 passing, 243 yards, 3 touchdowns, 3 interceptions) had some boffo moments and the Patriots actually led, 17-14, with 7:06 left in the third.
But then the Larger Forces stepped in again — with yet another thunderclap from Hines, the 5-foot-9-inch rocket from North Carolina State. After Folk’s short field goal put the Patriots into the lead, Hines returned another kickoff -— this one 101 yards — to put the Bills on top to stay. It was the 11th time in NFL history that a player returned two kickoffs for TDs in the same game.
Allen made it 28-17 late in the third, rolling to his right and feathering a nifty 42-yard TD pass over the coverage and into the arms of John Brown.
New England’s season effectively ended when Matt Milano intercepted a Jones pass in the end zone with Buffalo leading, 35-23, and just under five minutes left.
“I was proud of the way all of our players competed,” said Belichick. “In the end, we just didn’t make enough plays.”
There was extra nonsense in the form of scoreboard watching. Pathetically, the Patriots had an outside shot to back into the playoffs with an 8-9 record if the Steelers lost to the Browns in Pittsburgh and the Dolphins lost to the Jets in Miami. Neither game went the Patriots’ way and since both ended before the Patriots’ game ended, we knew it was mercifully over when it was over.
The 2022 Patriots, quite simply, do not belong in the NFL playoffs. Their eight wins this season came against a consortium of bum quarterbacks: Jared Goff, Zach Wilson (twice) Mitch Trubisky, Sam Ehlinger, Jacoby Brissett, Colt McCoy, Teddy Bridgewater and the immortal Skylar Thompson.
They were certainly not going to beat Josh Allen. Not on the day Buffalo celebrated and honored Damar Hamlin.
The Bills face-timed with Hamlin after the game and presented him with a game ball. Brown, who caught a touchdown pass late in the third, presented his game ball to Denny Kellington, the Bills assistant trainer who administered CPR and saved Hamlin’s life last Monday.
After scoring a TD for the Bills, John Brown handed the ball to Denny Kellington, who administered CPR to Damar Hamlin. pic.twitter.com/2FJeVkwctS— NFL on CBS 🏈 (@NFLonCBS) January 8, 2023
Read more from Patriots-Bills
- Instant analysis: Patriots came to play, but season-long problems haunt them in loss to Bills
- Christopher L. Gasper: This outcome was inevitable. It should help the Patriots initiate necessary changes.
- 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
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.