Patriots Coming Back Down to Earth

After an understandably slow start, the Patriots went on an amazing run to put themselves in the driver’s seat to win the AFC East, sitting at 9-4. They convinced many that a deep playoff run was possible, but after dropping a stinker last week against the Colts, the Patriots got outplayed from start to finish on Sunday by the Buffalo Bills and now no longer control their own destiny in the AFC East. The Pats were beat in all aspects of the game on Sunday and now look like the team we expected: competitive, but don’t have enough talent for a deep run.

One of the most concerning aspects of this team from the offseason until now was their cornerback depth. After the expected, but ugly breakup with #1 CB Stephon Gilmore, the Patriots were left with an improving and impressive J.C. Jackson as their #1 and then a group of average or below players. They combination of Jalen Mills and Myles Bryant is frankly just not very good. The next on the depth chart, Joejuan Williams and Shaun Wade, have barely seen the field as healthy scratches several weeks. The Pats elevated D’Angelo Ross from the practice squad yesterday instead of Wade and Williams, which is pretty telling. They are basically left with Jackson to cover the opponents #1 with no help and then a bunch of nothing to cover every other receiver. They have made it by with support from their safeties, but 1-on-1 coverage against even decent receivers is a struggle.

The Bills intelligently (you won’t hear me say that often) exploited the Pats biggest weakness and threw to Isaiah McKenzie what felt like 49 times. McKenzie had a total of 7 receptions on the season prior to Sunday, when he hauled in 11 receptions for 125 yards in a dominating performance. While he was impressive, the coverage was absolutely pathetic. While Jackson was busy covering Stephon Diggs, the rest of the secondary looked lost trying to cover the McKenzie and as a result, the Pats were forced to play a lot more zone to try and compensate. Josh Allen showed his improved awareness and was able to identify zone vs man seemingly a lot easier than in the past and was in turn able to exploit the matchup. The passing attack opened up running lanes, primarily for Allen if he didn’t see an open receiver (with some designed runs mixed in as well).

The game plan was the opposite of the Colts last weekend, because the teams are built in the opposite way. Last week, MVP candidate Jonathan Taylor did what he’s done to a lot of teams this year and just ran over the defense. Carson Wentz only attempted 12 passes (completing only 5) but that was enough with a superstar running back. The Bills are built as a pass-first team and that showed on Sunday. The Pats got beat in two dramatically different ways in the course of two weeks. Now opponents, if they didn’t already, have a clear blueprint to exploit the Pats defense.

Now let’s give the Bills credit where deserved. They came into the game wanting to be aggressive and with revenge on the mind. From the opening kickoff, they were playing at an extremely high level and took a lot of risky chances, almost all of which paid off. If they are aggressive and aren’t able to convert a few of their 4th and shorts, the makeup of this game could have been very different. It was clear that seeing the Pats a few weeks before helped them put together the perfect game plan to fool Mac and take advantage of the Pats secondary.

The Bills also caught a substantial break before half. With the Pats driving down 10, the refs magically picked up a clear unnecessary roughing penalty that would have put the Pats in field goal range. Mac Jones got pulled down from behind with two fistfuls of jersey, which in the modern NFL is as clear a penalty as possible and has been called that way all season (an for the last number of seasons). Apparently, refs now judge the intent of a hit out of bounds, rather than just following the rule, claiming there was no intent to harm and thus no penalty, which is ridiculous. It is clearly a penalty regardless of intent and the resulting meltdown led to no points for the Pats before half. David Andrews was called for a taunting penalty for yelling at a Bills player in the resulting play, which was just an exclamation point on another embarrassing episode for NFL refs. What should have been a first down on the edge of field goal range for the Pats, turned into being backed up to their own 32 yard-line and essentially ending their chance to swing momentum. Even worse, it gave the Bills all the momentum going into the locker room.

There is a lot to process with the last two games for the Pats, including offensive line struggles, Mac Jones looking like a rookie, and Jonnu Smith and N’Keal Harry still sucking (other than Harry’s blocking), but the embarrassment of the secondary doesn’t seem to be fixable and will likely be the achilles heal other teams will attempt to exploit. While a deep playoff run is likely out of the question now, the Pats will probably have to play on the road if they make the postseason. The good news? The Pats are 6-1 on the road in 2021.