Patriots’ season ends in underwhelming loss to Bills

By Vivi Smilgius and Ryan Leclerc

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The New England Patriots face a long offseason with many questions for 2022 after the organization’s playoff aspirations were cut short on Saturday by a 47-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills. The wild card loss marked an ignominious end to a relatively successful season. After losing legendary quarterback Tom Brady following the 2019 season—compounded by the ignoble performance of Cam Newton in 2020—New England entered 2021 with low aspirations. Many commentators were ready to count the team out of playoff contention, especially with a rookie quarterback leading the offense. 

Selected by the Patriots in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, Mac Jones contributed significantly to the New England’s offense as a rookie quarterback. The Alabama alum finished the season with 3,801 passing yards—the most of any rookie quarterback—and led NFL rookies in touchdown passes, completion percentage, and QB rating.

Jones was not the problem in Saturday’s game, which saw a defensive breakdown on the Patriots’ end. Buffalo scored on all of their seven drives, becoming the first team to do so in the Super Bowl era. The result is particularly disappointing for New England fans, especially after their organization spent $163 million bolstering its roster in free agency.

Despite a 2-4 start to the season, New England’s seven game win streak propelled them to 9-4, putting them in a playoff position. But Mac Jones seemed to hit the “rookie wall” after a bye week in December, when the Patriots fell to the Colts 27-17. 

Nevertheless, New England’s offense saw a stark improvement from the brief Newton era of last year. Running back Damien Harris scored 15 rushing touchdowns for the season—ranking second in the NFL—and tight end Hunter Henry logged nine touchdowns, proving a favored target for Jones.

The Patriots’ offense relied mainly on running the ball, but was aided significantly by its defense. Linebacker Matthew Judon tallied 11.5 sacks for the season—his career-high—with at least one sack against three-fourths of the Patriots’ opponents, per Pro Football Reference. J.C. Jackson established a presence as one of the best cornerbacks in the league with eight interceptions, the second-highest of any cornerback in the NFL this season. However, Jackson’s contract ended in March and there are doubts as to whether the Patriots will secure him for another season.

New England’s strong performances at other positions were not enough to make up for recurring problems at the wide receiver position. N’Keal Harry struggled offensively with zero touchdowns and 12 receptions for 184 yards over the season. Free agency signings Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and Jonnu Smith all had middling success. 

The Patriots’ defense faces another obstacle, more pressing and more difficult to address—age. With Dont’a Hightower at 31 and Devin McCourty at 34, the team will need to focus on rebuilding its defense with younger players. The Patriots will continue to have strong division competition with the Bills, and quarterback Josh Allen shows no signs of decline.

Looking ahead, the Patriots’ cap space will likely prevent them from acquiring top free agents for the 2022-2023 season, meaning they will need to fill in missing pieces by trading or via draft.