Oh, what I would give to go back in time to three weeks ago. The Patriots were headed into the bye, fresh off an intense win over the division rival Buffalo Bills on the road. New England was not only in first place in the AFC East, but first place in the entire AFC. For a brief second, the AFC was looking like it would run through Foxborough once again.
For the first time since Tom Brady departed New England, the Patriots felt like they were back on top. Back where they had been for the previous two decades. It was a great time to be a Patriots fan.
Flash forward to today, and the scene is quite different. I was lucky enough to be in attendance yesterday to watch the Bills dominate the Patriots in Foxborough. The 33-21 final score doesn’t quite paint the right picture, because Buffalo really did dominate the whole game. The Bills offense scored on nearly every possession, and the Mac Jones’ led Patriots offense looked awful for the most part.
Following the loss, the Patriots second in a row, they now sit at 9-6 on the season. No longer do they have control of the AFC East, that title now belongs to the Bills. No longer do they have the top seed in the conference either. As a matter of fact, they dropped from first to sixth in the AFC in a matter of two weeks.
For a stretch of seven weeks, the Patriots looked like the hottest team in the NFL. They went from out of the playoffs to the top ranked team in the conference. Their defense was untouchable, and their offense had been playing at a very high level as well. Now it seems as though the Patriots have come crashing back down to Earth.
Listen, it’s not literally the end of the world. Not all is bad. The Patriots still look like they will make the playoffs. The first round bye is definitely out of the picture. The AFC East is also essentially lost, barring a major upset loss by the Bills. New England is now simply playing for the Wild Card, and that’s okay.
The reality is, this team has still defied expectations. They have played at a level not many thought was possible, and will likely be one of the seven teams representing the AFC in January. Considering where we were a year ago, that’s great.
Our expectations of the Patriots have to be adjusted. I’m guilty of this especially, but many out there started to see this team as a Super Bowl contender. Maybe they could still make noise in the playoffs, who knows, but these last two losses proved that this team is not as close as we maybe thought.
The offense, particularly QB Mac Jones, has cooled off considerably. It’s not as if he was scorching the Earth before this, but he had been playing at a highly efficient level. The last two weeks he has gone 40 for 77 passing (just a 52% completion percentage), with 2 TDs and 4 INTs.
Against the Bills this week, Jones posted just a 31.4 quarterback rating, the worst of his young career thus far. RB Damien Harris was really the only thing working for the offense at all. He had an outstanding day, rushing for 103 YDs and 3 TDs.
First career 3 TD game for Damien Harris 💪pic.twitter.com/jfzhiCoe9v— Guy Boston Sports (@GuyBostonSports) December 26, 2021
We all know the running game is the strength of this offense. It has been all year. However, you cannot be one dimensional. This is not to say New England also has to be one of the best passing teams in the NFL. Yet, they have to be able throw it competently once in a while. That’s what made them so dangerous during the winning streak. The running game was booming, and Mac was making enough throws to keep opposing defenses honest.
The last two weeks, we’ve seen Mac make more mistakes and less efficient throws. The results speak for themselves. Not all blame should be thrown at Mac though. Josh McDaniels’ play calling, which has been criticized throughout the year, has been very uninspiring. You get the sense he simply doesn’t trust Mac. When he does call pass plays, they are very basic and don’t really set Mac up to succeed.
The worst part of the game yesterday however was the defense. The one thing New England has been able to rely on all season has been the defense. This week though, the defense played probably the worst game of the year. For the first time in the Belichick era, they never forced a single punt all game.
Today was Bill Belichick's 392nd game with the Patriots — and the first time his defense didn't force a single punt.— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) December 26, 2021
A historic performance by Josh Allen and the Bills.
Buffalo moved the ball down the field with ease. Bills’ WR Isaiah McKenzie finished with 11 receptions for 125 yards and a touchdown. Watching him in person, he was getting open so consistently and so easily it was very frustrating to watch. Coming into this game, McKenzie only had 6 receptions and 38 yards on the year. That’s pathetic.
The Patriots had no answer for Josh Allen’s legs or arm. He beat us anyway he could. The red zone defense was impressive in the first half, but that quickly fell apart too after halftime.
All around, it was just a bad effort by New England. Not the kind of football you want to see this team playing this late into the season. Questions will begin to arise if this team peaked too early.
Luckily for New England, they have the opportunity to right the ship next week against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars. It’s a game they must win to essentially lock them into the playoffs. If they were to lose, the following week against the Dolphins would be a battle for a Wild Card spot. Given this team’s history in Miami, I’d very much like to avoid that scenario.
The team has come crashing back down to reality, but there is still hope that they can turn things back around, and get ready for takeoff into the postseason. Only time will tell just how good this Patriots team really is.
Photo by Steven Senne/AP Photo