3 big takeaways from Patriots’ season-ending 35-23 loss in Buffalo

In a game that was far more competitive than many fans were likely expecting, the New England Patriots ended their season with a 35-23 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. It was an exciting game, with both offenses playing surprisingly well against each other’s sturdy defensive front.

New England quarterback Mac Jones had one of his better games of the season, going 26/40 for 243 yards and three touchdowns, but also recording three interceptions near the end of the contest. In contrast, Buffalo’s Josh Allen did not light up the stats sheet (19/31, 254 yards, three TD’s one INT), but made multiple excellent throws to keep the Bills ahead.

Ultimately, the Patriots just committed too many blunders to keep up with Buffalo’s high-powered offense.

Here are three big takeaways from the game.

An Ode to Special Teams

Special teams has historically been a point of pride for New England. A facet of the game that many teams tend to neglect, Bill Belichick and company have used it to effectively switch field position, catch teams off-guard, and win them football games.

This season, however, special teams seemed, well, neglected. Joe Judge earned himself a head coaching job with the New York Giants a few years ago for his brilliance as a special teams coordinator but was brought back to the Patriots this season to coach… offense?

Whether it was faith in incumbent special teams coordinator Cam Achord or a need to have more experienced coaching on the offensive side of the ball, New England decided to go with their current special teams coaching staff rather than giving Judge back his position. The on-field results of this decision were disastrous.

New England’s special teams unit was seemingly filled with ineptitude all season long, allowing the second-most kick return yards in the league (1098) while also netting a league-worst 30.9 average net punting yards, and making random blunders and miscues all season long that were unusual to see from a Belichick-coached team.

On Sunday, these blunders culminated in likely the Patriots’ worst special teams performance in at least 20 years. In front of a Buffalo home crowd hoping to see some Bills magic after everything that safety Damar Hamlin had gone through in the past week, New England did this on the opening kickoff.

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It was a beautiful moment for Buffalo, and even more meaningful with Hamlin watching on from his hospital bed. However, this beautiful moment occurred as a result of a complete special teams collapse on behalf of the Patriots.

Safety Jabrill Peppers was supposed to keep Hines contained on the far side of the field, but ran too far inside and ended up being blocked, allowing Hines to break free from the coverage and score a touchdown on the very first play of the game.

But it was the first play of the game. Plenty of time to regroup, assess what happened, and understand how to not let it happen again. To New England’s credit, they did contain Hines on another kickoff midway through the third quarter, they just missed a few tackles.

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Even with their offense going toe-to-toe with Buffalo’s for most of the game, the Patriots just couldn’t overcome these two special teams touchdowns. In what may have been future hall-of-fame special teamer Matthew Slater’s final professional game, the fearsome unit that he captained for so long completely and utterly collapsed, taking New England’s playoff hopes with them.

The defense wasn't Bad, Josh Allen was just Better

The Patriots played the Bills far better defensively on Sunday than they had in the last three years. They never let Josh Allen get comfortable, sending pressure whenever they could and ensuring that they could contain him well enough in the pocket.

This pressure showed up on the stats sheet too – the Patriots recorded two sacks (Wise, Ekuale), five tackles for loss (Jennings, Godchaux, Wise, Judon, Ekuale), and three QB hits (Wise, Ekuale, Judon).

Behind this stout defensive front, the secondary was making it difficult for Allen to connect with his receivers, playing tight coverage for most of the game. Longtime safety Devin McCourty recorded New England’s first interception off Allen in over two years in what may have been his last professional game, and the pass rush was largely forcing Allen to throw on the run and hit tighter windows.

Unfortunately, Allen was able to hit those windows even while on the run, sometimes just for short passes and occasionally on the deep ball, as evidenced by this late-game bomb to wide receiver Stefon Diggs.

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Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones was even in good coverage on Diggs, but could not defend the perfectly placed ball from Allen.

Josh Allen is one of the top quarterbacks in the league, and while the Patriots were able to defend him better than in previous games, they still could not get him uncomfortable enough to be off the mark.

Where does the offense go from here?

The Patriots had their best day of the season on offense. Even though it ended up not mattering, they consistently led lengthy, long scoring drives downfield, getting a good performance out of their short passing game in the process.

De facto offensive coordinator Matt Patricia has rightfully received much of the criticism for New England’s poor offense this season due to his subpar playcalling, but even he has shown growth throughout the season. In recent weeks, the team had been putting together more consistent scoring drives, and on Sunday, they looked like a playoff-caliber team even against Buffalo’s top-rated defense.

Patriots quarterback Mac Jones looked less like the uncomfortable second-year player that he was at many points to start the season and more like a player growing into his own, maneuvering in the pocket very well and making all the correct reads, such as on this touchdown late in the second quarter.

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Jones’ initial read was clearly to the left side (after a deke to cornerback Marcus Jones on the flat route), but he keeps his eyes moving downfield and steps up in the pocket as the pressure starts getting to him, eventually finding wide receiver DeVante Parker in the back of the end zone.

People on Twitter were taking notice of Jones’ good performance, including some former New England players.

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This season has been far from what New England or its fanbase were hoping with regard to the offense, but after this very good game, the question remains where the team goes from this point. Has Patricia done enough (in Belichick’s eyes) to keep his job calling offensive plays, and if not, who will replace him?

Moreover, there are many immediate improvements to make to the offensive side of the ball. With an estimated $37 million in cap space this offseason, New England could be able to retain their free agents (such as wide receiver Jakobi Meyers and running back Damien Harris) while also bolstering their roster with new talent, specifically on the depleted offensive line that contributed to numerous sacks, penalties, and other blunders throughout the year.

New England’s offense is young and flashes talent both in the passing game and in the running game. With the right direction, they could pair very well with the thunderous defense on the other side of the ball. The only question is whether the next direction they take will indeed be the right one.

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Story originally appeared on Patriots Wire