FOXBORO -- The Patriots had their post-bye lull. They had their maybe-we've-been-reading-our-press-clippings moment. That was in Indy, just last week. That was their wake-up call.
How, then, can Sunday's loss to the Bills be explained? How did the Patriots sleepwalk their way through large portions of the first half, in what amounted to a divisional championship game against one of their top rivals? At home?
"Not good enough in crucial moments," said center David Andrews. "A bad start put ourselves down in a hole, and you don't want to do that against a good football team."
From the jump, it was ugly. After running all over the Bills in Buffalo a few weeks ago, the Patriots trotted sixth offensive lineman Mike Onwenu onto the field and handed to Damien Harris. No gain. Then came an incomplete pass with Mac Jones under pressure from Bills safety Micah Hyde. Then came a sack, when Bills defensive lineman Ed Oliver beat Andrews through the heart of the offensive line.
Three plays. Negative three yards. Punt.
Defensively, it wasn't any better. The Bills did not punt in 60 minutes of football. That's the first time a Bill Belichick-coached team did not force at least one punt in a game. While no one would've predicted that through the early portion of the game, it was pretty apparent pretty quickly that Josh Allen was on.
One of the league's most impressive quarterbacking specimens completed six of his eight attempts on his first drive for 49 yards and a touchdown. He marched his team down the field with 13 plays that burned up just under seven minutes on the clock.
Every Bills drive lasted at least seven plays, and the Bills scored on six of their seven series. The lone sequence that didn't lead to points was when a fourth-down throw from Allen glanced off the hands of receiver Emmanuel Sanders in the end zone and fell incomplete.
If not for that drop, it would've been a 40-point day for the Patriots' holiday-weekend guests. Clearly, they were far more generous than they'd hoped to be.
"It's too late in the season to not play your best football," safety Devin McCourty said. "We've got to play better. We need to make a play. We are not making those plays. It hasn't been good. It's up to us as a team."
The Patriots are still very likely headed to the postseason. Five Thirty Eight has their odds of advancing to the playoffs at 96 percent. But their odds have dropped to 11 percent to win the division.
After winning in Buffalo in Week 13, they were sitting in the driver's seat for the No. 1 seed and a bye. A loss to Indy dropped them in the standings, but at least they were looking at a home playoff game. Now they're well aware they could be on the road come mid-January.
But before they get there, they're going to have to find a way to put a stake in what's now looking like a trend of lackadaisical starts that then require them to do exactly what they are not built to do: make big, explosive, quick-strike plays to claw back quickly and erase mistakes.
The Patriots just aren't that kind of team. Their margin for error is slimmer than that of a club with a superstar at the game's most important position surrounded by impact players on the outside. They have to play cleanly. When they don't, it looks the way it did Sunday.
"It's down to two games left," McCourty said. "Starting with Jacksonville, preparing, doing everything we have to. Putting everything into it and winning that game. I don't know how. I don't know what it will look like but it's that time of year to find a way to win."
For the second straight week, Mac Jones misread a linebacker dropping into coverage at the second level, leading to a pick. Unlike Darius Leonard last week in Indianapolis, AJ Klein was not able to snare Jones' pass, but he batted it up into the air -- after crashing hard toward the line on Jones' play-action fake -- for Micah Hyde to grab. Hyde later had a second pick on a Hail Mary type of attempt from Jones at the end of the game. And those weren't Jones' lone miscues.
He had a deep incompletion to N'Keal Harry that was well overthrown and nearly picked by corner Levi Wallace when a Cover 3 rotation covered Jones' two options creatively. Jones also had a bad pitch to Damien Harris that was fumbled but recovered by the Patriots.
Jones also was seemingly on a different wavelength with Hunter Henry all afternoon, and he and Brandon Bolden weren't able to connect on some easy checkdowns over the middle. Accuracy-wise, it was an uncharacteristically bad performance for the rookie, evidenced by a -19.5 completion percentage over expected figure from NextGen Stats. His incompletion to Henry in the second quarter on a deep out missed so badly it looked like Henry wasn't sure he was the intended target.
It was the kind of day that led to questions about whether or not Jones can be as consistently pinpoint in cold weather -- something he hasn't dealt with much over the course of his football-playing life growing up in Florida and playing in the SEC at Alabama. Temperatures sat in the upper-30s throughout the game, and there was some wind gusting from the open end of the stadium.
"I think it just goes back to execution, throwing it to the right guy, regardless of the weather," Jones said. "I'm still learning, obviously. I don't think there's any excuses. If the guy is open, you're supposed to throw it to him and he's supposed to catch the ball. We're supposed to move the sticks. If I can't hit him in the hands then he's not going to be able to catch the ball. The accuracy needs to improve."
Running back: B+
Damien Harris saw eight-man boxes on one third of his rushing attempts Sunday, per NGS, which was the fourth-highest mark in the league among backs with at least 15 attempts in Week 16. Yet he still picked up 5.7 yards per carry (sixth-best in Week 16) and 1.22 rush yards over expected per attempt (fifth-best).
Harris nearly fumbled at the goal line -- it was ruled he crossed the plane before the ball came loose -- and he muffed a toss thrown to his back hip by Jones. But he was not the problem on Sunday. That the Patriots played from behind for about 45 minutes of this matchup meant that Harris' contributions were limited by the flow of the game and the fact that they had to chuck it late.
"He’s a great player," Andrews said of Harris. "We have to do a better job of blocking for him. When you get down, obviously it changes the way you do things. You can’t play the game from behind like we have, put ourselves down like that, it’s just too hard to play catch up."
Brandon Bolden caught two of five targets for 20 yards and had a drop that dinged this unit's grade.
Wide receiver: C-
This group needed to have itself a day. Odds were the Bills were going to try to shut down the Patriots run game. Buffalo wasn't all that successful in that regard, but the score forced Jones to put it in the air anyway. That meant opportunities on the outside for Patriots wideouts. (Not including Nelson Agholor, who was scratched because of a concussion.)
They finished with just 87 yards combined until Kendrick Bourne put them over the 100-yard mark as the Patriots scrambled for points with under two minutes left.
Not what you're looking for -- particularly against a group of corners that was without its best player Tre'Davious White (out for the season with a torn ACL).
N'Keal Harry had just 15 yards on six targets and dropped a sure-thing first down on the outside in the second quarter. Harry helped lead the charge as a downfield blocker on Harris' 16-yard touchdown run, but he was seldom used as a blocker at the line of scrimmage, and in fact it looked as though the Patriots -- perhaps trying to break some tendencies -- went out of their way to run away from Harry's side of the formation when he was out there.
With Bourne on COVID reserve throughout the week and unable to practice, the clear money-down option was Jakobi Meyers. He finished with six grabs for 59 yards, including three on a third-quarter touchdown drive that featured him working over the middle and diving for first-down yardage through hard contact on third down. He was hobbled but stayed in the game and later made a laid-out grab on fourth down to keep the team on the field.
Meyers' effort on that series helped keep this grade from sinking any further. But the Patriots need more from this group in a game like that one, where the passing game comes so sharply into focus.
"We just haven’t been executing to the best of our ability," Meyers said. "That’s the NFL. They’re going to execute or we are. Either one. Whoever does is going to win. Whoever doesn’t is going to lose. We haven’t been doing it to the best of our ability. If we want to win, we’ve got to go into the locker room, look each other in the eyes, and say, ’We’ve got to do it right. Do the hard things right.' "
Tight end: D
Not Jonnu Smith's best day. It was encapsulated by a first-quarter flea-flicker that was torpedoed when he lost his one-on-one block. That forced Mac Jones to pull the ball down and hold it, missing wideout Kristian Wilkerson deep down the field for a possible touchdown. Later in the drive, as Jones flipped a pass underhanded to Brandon Bolden with plenty of room to run, Smith was called for a hold.
The Patriots later scored on the drive -- and Smith made a good downfield block to help Harris get in the end zone -- but that was a forgettable sequence for Smith, who wasn't targeted in the passing game.
Jones could've used Henry as a security blanket, but he was silenced by some combination of Bills coverage plans and miscommunication between him and his quarterback. Targeted six times, several of those ended up uncatchable, and only one was caught for nine yards. One fell incomplete when it looked like Henry ran a curl when Jones was expecting an out-route based on the coverage.
Jakob Johnson came up with a first-down catch on his lone target, and his blocking helped Harris have a nice day, but it wasn't enough to boost this grade much higher than where it sits here.
Offensive line: C
This group allowed just one sack and it helped pave the way for the Patriots to rush for 5.5 yards per carry and 149 yards total. Jones wasn't completely comfortable in the pocket all game -- he took a couple of hard shots late as he frantically tried to make plays through the air in a comeback bid -- but this group wasn't exactly the reason for the loss Sunday.
This group was on the hook for a couple of taunting penalties, though, which at this point in the season are hard to excuse away. Are the penalties a good example of over-officiating? Yup. Is it frustrating they have an impact on the game? Sure. But the rules are pretty clear-cut at this point.
Trent Brown picked up a taunting penalty when he was jawing at the Bills during a stoppage in play. David Andrews got flagged for another when he came to Jones' defense after Jones was hit while sliding.
"After we had the foul for the dead ball personal foul on the Buffalo defender, we had the situation under control," referee Shawn Smith told pool reporter Mike Reiss of ESPN, "and then the New England player got into the face of the opponent and started yelling. So, we had a taunting foul."
Special teams: C-
The Patriots allowed a 15-yard punt return in the second quarter and a 31-yard kick return in the third. In the fourth, Gunner Olszewski muffed a kickoff and was able to return it just two yards to the 17-yard line. Olszewski's only other kick return went for just 17 yards.
Defensive line: C-
This group typically gets graded on its performance against the run. And they were OK in that regard when it came to more traditional runs, holding Devin Singletary to just 3.3 yards per carry with a long carry of just seven yards. But this group had its breakdowns when Josh Allen tucked and ran, like when rush lanes got muddy and Allen found a lane up the gut between Ja'Whaun Bentley and Davon Godchaux for 25 yards in the second quarter.
Against the pass, things weren't much better. Allen wasn't sacked on the night. Christian Barmore did record a pair of pressures that helped lead to incompletions. And Lawrence Guy hit Allen on a third-down misfire in the red zone. But Allen had all kinds of time to throw in this one; NGS clocked him as having 2.89 seconds to throw on average, which was ninth-longest in the NFL this week headed into Sunday Night Football. He completed seven of 12 passes for 100 yards and a score on "extended dropbacks" (four seconds or more), per NGS.
At one point, when the Patriots were prepped to rush the passer from the interior, they were a little too eager. Barmore was tagged with an encroachment penalty when he tried to time the snap (despite being aligned directly over the center) and turned a fourth-and-seven play into a fourth-and-two that the Bills converted.
It's surprising enough that on 47 pass attempts Allen was not sacked a single time. But to go that long without a sack when the Buffalo offensive line was jumbled and pieced together late thanks to COVID and injuries? That's eye-opening.
The Bills started Spencer Brown -- a third-round rookie who has bounced back and forth between left and right tackle -- on the right side. Starting left tackle Dion Dawkins was on the COVID reserve list and unable to practice last week. Starting guard Jon Feliciano ended up in the hospital last week as he dealt with COVID and missed Sunday's game. New starter at guard, Ike Boettger, ruptured his Achilles early Sunday.
It was a MASH unit. Still, they didn't punt.
Outside of getting his hands on the football for what was ruled an incompletion in the third quarter, Matt Judon was quiet. In the second quarter, he was handled by Dawkins and nearly allowed the Bills to score. In the fourth quarter, he was pancaked and allowed Allen to step up and flip one to Stefon Diggs for a first down. On another rep Kyle Van Noy pressured Allen into a third-down throwaway that led to a field goal, he drew a hold, and he hit Allen on an 11-yard completion. So it wasn't as though the Patriots were entirely kept out of the backfield.
But in trying to execute a crush-rush style plan, keeping Allen in the pocket, they still were carved up because they couldn't collapse the pocket fast enough. That led to plenty of time and space for Allen behind center. Early on, he took checkdowns as the Patriots tried to keep him in the well and stay deeper than his pass-catching options. Later, often side-stepping pressure, he gashed the Patriots for bigger gains through the air.
"I think he just does a really good job of watching the rush lanes," Van Noy said of Allen. "He has a good feel in the pocket, he did a pretty good job tonight, extended some plays. We just got to do a better job of matching that same energy he had, and if not bring a little bit more. He did a really good job tonight, props to him."
The inability of the Patriots defense to consistently generate pressure certainly didn't help this group. But Josh Allen threw for over 300 yards and three scores. McCourty admitted after the game that the Patriots could've gotten a little more from their secondary by making a change or two, especially in how they dealt with wideout Isaiah McKenzie, who hit 125 yards receiving on 11 catches.
"They used him well, game-plan wise," McCourty said. "We didn't adjust, and I felt like I could've made some adjustments on the field that would've helped us. We just didn't get it done."
When the Patriots were in man-to-man coverage -- which seemed to be their choice late in this one as Allen proved he was willing to be patient and surgical early in this one -- Myles Bryant was New England's option for McKenzie. On paper, it looked like a winnable matchup for the Patriots since McKenzie is more a reserve receiver -- his previous high for receiving yardage this season was 12 -- who had an opportunity Sunday with both Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis out adhering to COVID protocols.
Allen also found a banged-up Stefon Diggs, a focal point for the Patriots defense on third down and in the red zone, for 85 yards on seven catches. Diggs also caught a touchdown on a slant, getting enough separation from J.C. Jackson for Allen to aggressively throw in his favorite receiver's direction.
"Josh Allen did a great job of whatever the defense was, just taking what was there," McCourty said. "Not trying to force any plays. If everyone was covered downfield, he checked it down. When we got in different coverages where it was open downfield, he took it. He played a really controlled game of taking what the defense was giving in certain situations."
The biggest blunder this group made, though, might've been on an incomplete pass. With just over seven minutes left in the game, with the Bills leading by five, Allen and Diggs had a communication issue on a route. Allen threw wide of Diggs and Jackson had a chance to pick it off ... and potentially score on his interception return. But the ball was dropped and the Patriots allowed Buffalo to go 75 yards from there to score and put the game away.
"I know J.C.’s kicking himself for that pick," Van Noy said, "but we’ve got to have those, especially this time of year with the season on the line. We’ve got to come together and do a little bit more. I think we should be able to do that."