Special teams miscues, Josh Allen doom Patriots in season-ending loss


We'll give the New England Patriots this: They didn't go down without a fight.

The Patriots entered Highmark Stadium as heavy underdogs against a highly-motivated Buffalo Bills team playing for safety Damar Hamlin, who is recovering in the hospital after suffering a cardiac arrest last Monday.

New England played like its postseason hopes were on the line, however, at one point taking a 3-point second-half lead before Josh Allen and the Bills surged to a 35-23 victory.

AFC playoff seeding, Wild Card Round matchups set as Patriots lose to Bills

The Patriots are officially eliminated from the playoffs with the loss. The Miami Dolphins beat the New York Jets 11-6 in their season finale, so they'll be the No. 7 seed in the AFC and travel to Buffalo on Wild Card Weekend to face the No. 2 seed Bills.

The Patriots finish the season 8-9 and are now 25-25 since Tom Brady's departure.

Here are our takeaways from New England's Week 18 loss in Buffalo:

Patriots weather early storm in Buffalo

This one looked like it could be a rout after the first 10 seconds.

After the Bills paid an emotional pregame tribute to Damar Hamlin, Nyheim Hines returned the opening kickoff for a 96-yard touchdown to whip the home crowd into a frenzy.

The Patriots promptly went three-and-out on their first offensive drive -- but then the tide turned. New England's defense stopped Josh Allen and the Bills, then the offense promptly engineered a nine-play, 74 yard drive that ended with a spectacular Jakobi Meyers touchdown catch to tie the score at 7-7.

That drive showed true resolve from the Patriots, who easily could have folded with the entire stadium (and most of the country) rooting against them but instead let the Bills know this would be a ballgame.

Special teams fails the Patriots again

Patriots special teams coordinator Cam Achord might be looking for a new job this offseason.

New England's normally rock-solid third unit has been plagued by miscues this season, and two in Week 18 may have cost the team a playoff spot. The Patriots allowed Hines to spring not one but two kickoff returns for touchdowns, the second coming midway through the third quarter after New England had taken its first lead of the game.

Hines is the first player since Leon Washington in 2010 with two kickoff return touchdowns in the same game, while the Patriots finish the season having allowed half of the six kickoff return touchdowns in the entire league this season.

Hines' pair of returns were demoralizing for a Patriots team that finally looked competent on offense and had held Allen and Co. relatively in check to that point. To make matters worse, when Nick Folk attempted a squib kick in the fourth quarter to prevent another Hines return, the ball rolled out of bounds, giving Buffalo possession at its own 40-yard line and setting up a Stefon Diggs touchdown that essentially sealed the Bills' victory.

Bill Belichick places a greater emphasis on special teams than perhaps any head coach in the NFL, so expect this group to re-evaluated in the offseason -- starting with Achord.

Offensive building blocks?

The Patriots' offense still has a long way to go, but it still looked competent -- dare we say above-average? -- for much of Sunday's game.

Mac Jones led two first-half touchdown drives of at least nine plays and 70 yards, completing 13 of his first 15 passes and capping his second TD drive with a teardrop pass to DeVante Parker on a nice play design by Matt Patricia.

Jones continued to make key throws in the second half, picking up a key fourth-down conversion on a pass to Jakobi Meyers before hitting Parker on a deep ball for a 26-yard score.

Jones went a perfect 17 for 17 on his three touchdown drives, while the Patriots appeared to find a formula for success utilizing the play-action pass.

Jones made his fair share of mistakes -- he threw three interceptions and finished 26 of 40 for 246 yards -- but the bar is low in New England, and a season-high three touchdown passes for the Patriots' QB has to be viewed as a positive sign.

That said, we should see significant offensive changes this offseason -- starting with play-caller.

Josh Allen is on another level

How wide is the gap between the Patriots and elite offense? Allen displayed it Sunday.

The Bills' offense didn't play its best game, but Allen willed his team to victory with the help of two ridiculous touchdown passes -- a 42-yard bomb to John Brown in the third quarter and a 49-yard strike to Stefon Diggs in the fourth.

New England's defense actually played a decent game, as the Patriots outgained the Bills 347-327 on offense. But Allen's arm talent was a difference-maker in this one and is the reason why Buffalo is a Super Bowl contender while New England is making vacation plans.

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