ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – In an environment which most any visiting team would have no chance to win, credit the Patriots for hanging around until late in the fourth quarter.
But in the end, the not-truly-playoff-worthy Patriots met their ultimate fate, as the emotionally charged Buffalo Bills, in need of a win to lift their spirits and to ensure themselves of the two seed in the playoffs, parlayed two kickoff returns for touchdowns and two long touchdown passes into a 35-23 victory over the Patriots on Sunday afternoon at Highmark Stadium. The loss, coupled with Miami’s win over the Jets and Pittsburgh’s win over Cleveland, eliminates the Patriots from the playoffs. Miami wound up with the seventh playoff seed and will travel to Buffalo next week in the Wild Card round.
The Patriots have been in scenarios like this before, but on this day you perhaps had the entire nation rooting for Buffalo. The scary scene at Cincinnati last Monday night involving safety Damar Hamlin transcended the entire sports world, and it has triggered a series of strange playoff scenarios due to the fact that the game was suspended and eventually cancelled. Playoff ramifications aside, Hamlin’s condition has been the concern of every good-hearted person, sports fan or not. His progress has been good so far; he can now breathe on his own and talk, a long way from his going into cardiac arrest during the Monday night game against the Bengals. Hamlin remains in critical condition at the University of Cincinnati medical center.
The atmosphere in Buffalo was predictably electric. Everyone outside of New England was cheering for the Bills because of Hamlin and his situation. To make things more difficult for the Patriots, Nyehim Hines ran the opening kickoff back 96 yards for a touchdown as electric turned quickly into insane. Jim Nantz and Tony Romo went into full cliche mode on the CBS broadcast, and everyone watching the game had to be absolutely dumbstruck.
Stop it right there. After this sort of beginning, under these challenging conditions, given the emotional state of the Bills, you had to figure that the Patriots, who had to win to clinch a playoff berth, were dead ducks right then and there. Buffalo would drop 50 points on the Patriots, and the Patriots would actually look worse than they did during the first meeting in Foxborough a week after Thanksgiving. The Patriots needed to win and could not count on both Miami and Pittsburgh losing. This suddenly looked like a completely lost cause for the Patriots.
All that said, give the Patriots credit for flipping the script and giving the Bills a good game, hanging around until late in the fourth quarter. The Patriots went three and out on their first drive, making things look even worse. But the fact that the game was 14-14 at halftime was a major win for the Patriots, and showed that they were able to compete with the best team in the division on the road and neutralize the horrible (for the Patriots) start to the game.
In the end, the better team won, and it was more about the Bills being better than the Patriots than anything else. Josh Allen is the best quarterback in the division and played like it, save for one red zone interception. The Patriots were able to force three Buffalo punts, and they were able to hold Buffalo to under four yards per carry rushing average. Allen did not hurt the Patriots running the ball, as he had nine rushes for only 16 yards.
But big plays and special teams did in the Patriots, and this was mostly about the Bills being better than the Patriots and the Patriots not being particularly situationally good this entire season.
On the opening kickoff, Hines ran up the middle, then cut right and was able to beat containment from Jabrill Peppers and then outran Mack Wilson down the right sideline to the end zone. Then in the third quarter, after a field goal by Nick Folk gave the Patriots an unlikely 17-14 lead, Hines took the kickoff one yard deep in the end zone, ran up the middle, then ran through tackle attempts from Jahlani Tavai and Myles Bryant and took off down the left sideline for a 101-yard kickoff return. Hines became the first player since Leon Washington in 2010 to run two kickoffs back for touchdowns in the same game.
Bryant was beaten again on a key play on the next Buffalo offensive possession. On second down and ten at the Patriot 42, Allen was under pressure and scrambled to his right. Just before he ran out of bounds, he lofted an off-balance pass down the right sideline to John Brown, who streaked by Bryant and made a diving catch of the pass in the end zone. It made the score 28-17 Buffalo at the time, but plenty of time left for the Patriots to respond.
The Patriots did respond, with Mac Jones hitting Devante Parker from 26 yards out for a touchdown as the game went into the fourth quarter. On the next possession, facing third down and 10 at the Patriot 49, Allen dropped back and lofted a deep left sideline pass. Stefon Diggs ran past Jonathan Jones and caught the perfect pass in stride to complete the scoring.
Jones had a pretty good game, hitting 26 of 40 passes for 243 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions, two of which could be called his fault. His passer rating was 75.3. Parker led the Patriots with 79 receiving yards, while he and Hunter Henry had six catches each. Rhamondre Stevenson had 54 yards rushing, and topped the 1000-yard rushing mark for the season with 1040 rushing yards.
Allen had 19 of 31 passing for 254 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, and a rating of 106.1. Diggs had seven catches for 104 yards and a touchdown.
The Patriots finish with an 8-9 record, and miss the playoffs for the second time in three years. Since finishing 12-4 in Tom Brady’s final season as quarterback, the Patriots are an aggregate 25-25 in the regular season and 0-1 in the postseason. Much will be said about the post mortem on this season, as well as what will have to be done to help return the Patriots to respectability and give them a better chance at a playoff berth and a good seeding rather than to try and eke into the playoffs as a seven seed.
Bill Belichick will have to do some soul searching as well, as his plan for this team this year was flawed and did not pan out as he predicted. It starts with his coaching staff and goes downhill from there. If Belichick still has serious designs on catching Don Shula for most coaching wins in NFL history, he had better draw on all his smarts and football brains and start with a better and more functional coaching staff.
The 2022 season is over for the Patriots. Time now to look forward to the crack of the bats in southern Florida, and see some newly rich third baseman who isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
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