What ended Saturday night in the frigid Buffalo air began five weeks ago in the cozy confines of the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.
Fresh off their Week 14 bye, the New England Patriots defense was being celebrated as an elite unit in the NFL. And their performance in the wild winds of Buffalo in their final game before that bye, holding Josh Allen and the Bills to 230 total yards and 10 points, was the exclamation point.
So, when the Colts raced to a 20-0 lead after three quarters in that Week 15 game, it wasn’t viewed as a red flag that the mighty defense was starting to crumble. And Bill Belichick told the world that was so when he kicked a controversial field goal on a 4th-and-goal, expecting his defense to do what it had done for 13 weeks: Rise up and stop their opponent, giving the ball back to Mac Jones and the offense.
But the defense didn’t rise up. Not that night. Not ever again in the 2021 season.
And on Saturday night, the demise of the Patriots defense was laid bare for all to see in a shocking display of ineptitude.
The Bills pitch a historic perfect game as the Patriots defense whiffed all night
Never before Saturday night had an NFL team played a “perfect” game, defined as having no punts, field goals or turnovers. Never in the regular season and certainly not in the playoffs.
But that is what the Bills did to the Patriots in the Wild Card game, scoring touchdowns on all seven of their possessions in a 47-17 demolition job. Only a pair of missed extra points prevented the Bills from scoring a truly perfect game, but the fact remains, every time the Bills took over the football, they put it in the end zone.
It was the second time in the past four weeks that the Bills did not have a single punt in a game against the Patriots. On Saturday night, the Patriots’ defense registered zero sacks, zero tackles for loss, and just a single QB hit. The 47 points allowed was the fourth-most in franchise history. Only the 46-10 loss in Super Bowl XX back in 1986 was a worse playoff loss in Patriots history.
Defensive captain Devin McCourty, who is now a free agent, called the performance “embarrassing.”
“I mean, everything they did, I think they just did a good job of creating chunk plays, good job on the running game. (Josh) Allen, I think the big scramble early put ’em in scoring position. Like I said, we didn’t get a stop.
“Everything they did offensively was a good play for them. And you have no shot to win a game like that.”
The stars were not aligned for the Patriots defense down the stretch
After 13 weeks the Patriots defense was allowing an NFL-best 15.38 points per game. But starting in Week 15 through Saturday’s blowout, the Patriots allowed an average of 27.2 points per game. In those final five weeks, the Patriots went 1-4, the lone victory a 50-10 beatdown of the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars.
But in the four losses to Buffalo (twice), Indianapolis, and the Miami Dolphins, the Patriots allowed at least 27 points in all four games. They allowed just two games of 27 points or more in the first 13 weeks. The Patriots generated three turnovers against Jacksonville, but just one in the four losses combined.
And playing with an offense that was run-first and with a rookie quarterback who lacked the ability to produce points in bunches, the Patriots fell behind by scores of 20-0 to Indianapolis in Week 15, 20-7 to the Bills in Week 16 and 17-0 to Miami in Week 18, and finally 27-0 on Saturday night.
The defensive collapse was personified by its two best players over the first 13 weeks. Defensive end Matt Judon was all over opposing quarterbacks after 13 weeks, recording 12½ sacks, 25 quarterback hits, and 14 tackles for a loss. In the final five weeks, Judon had no sacks, one QB hit, and one tackle for a loss. On Saturday, Judon played on just 39 percent of the Bills’ snaps.
J.C. Jackson was so dominant in the secondary, he earned second-team All-Pro honors. But according to Next Gen Stats, Jackson was torched by Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs, the only receiver that really mattered to the Patriots’ fortunes. Against the rest of the league, Diggs held the receivers he covered to 49.8% completion percentage, 5.9 yards per target, and a 5/24 TD/interception ratio.
Against Diggs, Jackson allowed a 66.7% completion percentage, 11.7 yards per target, and three touchdowns against one interception. How Jackson fared against Diggs mirrored how the teams fared against each other. And that is why the Bills are still playing and the Patriots are not.
Questions abound about the future of the defense heading into the offsesason
There are disappearances like Judon over the final five games, and then there are the disappearances that could occur over the next two months. Jackson, McCourty, and another playoff no-show, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, are now all free agents. Jackson is expected to be the top defensive back on the free-agent market, and there is some belief that the Patriots will slap the franchise tag on him. But both Hightower and McCourty would probably have to accept less money if they were to say. And given the way the defense folded over the final five weeks, a major overhaul could be in order.
If so, the NFL Draft is the most-likely vehicle for change, as after their wild free agency frenzy last offseason, the Patriots have precious little wiggle room this time under the salary cap.
We’re on to the offseason, Bill Belichick declared on Sunday. But not right away. The Patriots are still trying to come to grips with a historic beatdown by the Bills.
“We all need to step back, catch our breath and take a longer view of things. At some point we’ll talk about certain situations,” Belichick said. “Players who aren’t under contract, players who whatever their future is with the team or what their individual situations are, those will all be dealt with at a later point in time, certainly not today, tomorrow or the next day.”
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference