After failing to score a touchdown in each of their last two games, the New England Patriots came out firing on all offensive cylinders to open their primetime contest against the Buffalo Bills on Monday night. With a 27-yard kickoff return by Donte Moncrief setting the tone and Sony Michel adding a 29-yard carry on the second play from scrimmage, the Patriots quickly reached the Buffalo side of the field.
What followed was the first of many missed opportunities for a team with a razor-thin margin of error. On a 2nd-and-13, Josh McDaniels called a well-timed trick play that saw Michel throw a lateral across the field to Newton who in turn would target Damiere Byrd deep on an over route.
Michel executed the play perfectly. Newton executed the play perfectly. Byrd executed the play perfectly, at least until the moment the ball arrived: the first-year Patriot was unable to haul the catch in, despite it being placed just where it needed to be. New England’s number one wide receiver in terms of targets and playing time simply dropped the ball.
Instead of scoring an early touchdown, the Patriots had to settle for a field goal to change the entire dynamic of the game.
The play itself was par the course for New England this year, and the first of many squandered chances the Patriots had to stay competitive against a red-hot opponent. Whether it was the uncharacteristically long kickoff allowed on the very next play after the aforementioned Nick Folk field goal, or Newton taking an unnecessary 13-yard sack to end the team’s next offensive possession, consistency remained a major problem.
There was arguably no series that illustrated this better than the second for the Patriots’ defense. With the game tied at 3-3 and New England just having punted the ball away following that sack versus Newton, the defense came close to getting off the field after just three plays. In actually did, but it had to come back on after Buffalo pulled off a fake punt pass to convert a 4th-and-5.
Four plays later, the Bills moved the chains on another successful fourth down try. Three plays after that a J.C. Jackson interception was called back because of an offsides call against Patriots defensive tackle Adam Butler. Two plays following the overturned turnover, Buffalo round the end zone and never looked back from that point on: the visitors scored two more touchdowns before halftime to go up 24-9 at intermission.
Those missed plays mentioned above were not the sole reason for that deficit, but one has to wonder how they would have changed the complexion of the game had New England — as it did so often in years past — been able to execute.
Instead, the team was caught in an avalanche that buried all of its hopes of coming back and preventing the first season-sweep versus an AFC East opponent in two decades.
The Patriots being unable to cash in on potential opportunities was not limited to a few plays or situations, though, but also to the biggest question mark on the entire team: a quarterback position that saw Cam Newton start the game but get benched after another statistically disappointing outing; Jarrett Stidham took the field for him midway through the third period, but the youngster followed his teammates’ example.
Stidham too failed to take advantage of the chance in front of him.
The second-year backup, who has entered the field in a relief role on five different occasions so far this season, went just 4-for-11 passing the football while gaining 44 yards through the air. That output was still better than the 34 yards put up by Newton in his 5-for-10 performance, but that should not be the goal. Stidham had another chance to build some momentum heading into the regular season finale, and once more did little with it.
“I’ve loved to have gotten each and every opportunity that I’ve had,” he said during a media conference call after the contest. “I wish, obviously, that they’ve gone better and we could put some more points on the board. But I think game experiences, there’s nothing like it. So, I’m just going to continue to grind and work my butt off every single week and just be ready for whatever opportunity that I get.
“For me, at the end of the day, whatever opportunity I’m given, I want to try and make the most of it. Whether that’s in the third quarter, the fourth quarter, whenever that is, I need to go out and make the most of it. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do.”
While his resolve is admirable, Stidham has time and again been unable to position himself as Tom Brady’s heir in 2020. He was projected to take over after Brady’s free agency departure, but lost the job to a recently-signed Cam Newton in training camp. He had a chance to show off his talents in a relief effort against the Kansas City Chiefs, and while it saw him surpass Brian Hoyer on the depth chart, it did nothing to challenge Newton.
He has completed 22 of 44 pass attempts for 263 yards as well as two touchdowns and three interceptions. The context of him not preparing as the starter during the week is obviously important, but Stidham has not done much with the chances he was given.
Monday night was more of the same for him, and for other players all over New England’s roster — starters or depth options alike.
So, where does the team move from here? For cornerback and team captain Jason McCourty, forward is the only way.
“We have one more opportunity left for this season, with this group of guys,” McCourty said after the game. “Obviously we talk about it all the time: I was here in 2018, we won the Super Bowl and you come back in 2019 and the team’s different. No matter what, things change. I think when you have a season like we did this year and you’re not going to the playoffs, you have embarrassing losses, this roster’s going to be a lot different.
“There’s a lot of guys that are in the locker room tonight that aren’t going to be in the locker room next year. Guys that are playing football right now that aren’t going to be playing football next year. For us, we have one more opportunity left together so whoever’s out there — young, old or indifferent, we’ve got to go out there and compete.”
The level of competitiveness may not have been an issue against Buffalo or other teams this year. Failing to take cash in on opportunities, on the other hand, very much continues to be.