FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — There were moments in Gillette Stadium on Sunday when you understood why the Buffalo Bills were at various points of the season considered one of the AFC's favorites. They have a good coaching staff, an elite quarterback and a very good defense.
There’s no denying that the AFC East title now runs through Buffalo after years of dominance by New England. You could hear the disappointment in the Foxborough faithful when they booed their hometown team. You can see it when they headed for the exits with 2:30 left in the game.
Life changed forever when Tom Brady left in 2020. The road to NFL supremacy isn’t easy. It’s a roadmap where you need talent and some luck. The Patriots have a bit of both, but clearly not enough to be considered Super Bowl favorites right now.
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Everyone wants another Super Bowl. Everyone wants to see that seventh banner hanging in Gillette Stadium. Everyone dreams of a Patriots-Tampa Bay Buccaneers Super Bowl in which Bill Belichick faces off against Brady. How fun would that be?
For a moment this season, it seemed possible. During the Patriots' seven-game win streak, it certainly felt like it. Then, after the bye week, the Pats came out flat in Indianapolis followed by an embarrassing 33-21 home loss to the Bills on Sunday.
Two losses in a row to AFC playoff contenders should tell you what you need to know about the 2021 Patriots: Their time isn’t now.
That doesn’t mean this season is a disappointment. For that to be the case, the Patriots would have to miss the playoffs. At this point, the Pats are more than likely headed for an AFC wild-card spot. However, over the last couple of weeks, the Patriots have been exposed in multiple areas.
Here’s what we’ve learned about the Patriots over the final two weeks:
We overrated the defense
The Patriots could handle trading Stephon Gilmore. J.C. Jackson has put together a Pro Bowl season and Jalen Mills has been solid. That being said, the Patriots couldn’t afford to lose Jonathan Jones.
Jones was the second-best cornerback on the team behind Jackson. When the Pats lost him to a season-ending shoulder injury, they lost a piece that has become impossible to replace. Case in point was Isaiah McKenzie on Sunday. Myles Bryant has given a valiant effort this season, but he has struggled in coverage.
Bryant entered this week having allowed 77% of passes targeted to receivers he's covering to be caught. On Sunday, his assignment, McKenzie had a career-game with 11 receptions for 125 yards.
The Patriots couldn’t stop the Bills backup slot receiver.
They also couldn’t generate a pass rush, which has been incredibly disappointing outside of Matthew Judon. After Judon's 12 ½ sacks, Kyle Van Noy is next with four sacks. Entering this season, many thought the combination of Judon, Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower, Josh Uche and Chase Winovich would drive opposing quarterbacks crazy. The Pats entered last week tied for 14th in total sacks. They failed to sack Josh Allen one time on Sunday.
On paper, the Patriots should have an elite defense, But it's fair to wonder if people overrated this group during their seven-game win streak. After all, they played the Bills in gale-force winds, beat Tennessee without A.J. Brown or Derrick Henry and beat Cleveland without Nick Chubb or Kareem Hunt.
The Bills didn't punt once on Sunday. Before that, the Pats allowed 226 rushing yards to Indianapolis.
“There’s just nothing to talk about. We just have to go do it,” said Pats safety Devin McCourty. “It’s that point in the season where you either get it done or you don’t. That’s where we’re at and that’s what we need to focus on — getting better next week.”
Mac Jones isn’t ready to lead this offense
Colts linebacker Darius Leonard didn’t hold back. He said his defense wanted to take away the Pats' run game to see if Mac Jones could win a game for the Patriots. Then the Pats were held to just 81 rushing yards and Jones threw two costly interceptions.
On Sunday, it was clear how the Patriots were going to get going on offense and it had nothing to do with their rookie quarterback. The production was from Damien Harris, who ran for 103 yards and scored three touchdowns.
If you’re an NFL team and you want to slow down the Patriots offense, the book is simple: Stop the Pats run on first or second down and force Jones to throw. On Sunday, the rookie completed a season-low 44% of his passes, going 14-for-32 for 145 yards with two interceptions.
“There are no excuses and there's really nothing to talk about,” said Jones. “I didn't play great. I can play better and I can lead a lot better. It starts with me.”
We’re not saying Jones is a bad quarterback. But so far, Jones hasn’t shown the ability to take over a game. The Patriots need to run the ball efficiently in order to win.
Part of the problem isn’t all Jones, either. He’s having an above-average rookie season, completing 67.2% of his passes for 3,313 yards with 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Historically speaking, he’s better than most rookie quarterbacks.
One issue we are seeing, however, is that he doesn’t have a legitimate No. 1 receiver. Harris is the best player on offense. Hunter Henry is an above-average tight end. Jakobi Meyers (723 yards) and Kendrick Bourne (700 yards) have been solid. However, is there a pass catcher on this team that scares opposing defensive players?
If Jones had a top-tier talent, life would be easier for him. The Pats are paying Nelson Agholor (two years, $22 million) top-receiver money but aren’t getting top-receiver production. Jonnu Smith (four years, $50 million) has also been a disappointment.
The sky isn’t completely falling
The odds are that the Patriots won’t win the AFC East, but they’re almost guaranteed to make the playoffs. Even after the loss on Sunday, FiveThirtyEight has the Patriots playoff chances at 97%.
“It’s up to us as a team for what’s left for the season,” said McCourty. “We’re guaranteed two more games and that’s it. That’s how we’ve got to approach it. That’s the mentality and mindset we have to have. If not, this season will not end the way we want.”
After losing on Sunday, the Pats dropped to the sixth seed in the AFC. If the playoffs started today, they'd travel to Cincinnati for the wild-card game. If they won, they'd probably go to Kansas City. Good luck to them.
With the issues the Pats have shown on both sides of the ball, against two good teams, it’s unlikely we’ll see a long playoff run. That might be disappointing considering where this team was a couple of weeks ago when it was the top seed in the AFC.
But coming off a 7-9 season, the Patriots have rebounded nicely in 2021. You’ll take a playoff season with a rookie quarterback, but banner seven doesn’t look like it’s coming soon.
Not yet anyways.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: New England Patriots' Super Bowl dreams now look out of reach