The New England Patriots knew they could not allow themselves to fall into an early hole if they wanted to win their wild card playoff matchup with the Buffalo Bills. And yet, that is exactly what happened.
After a short kickoff to open the game, the Patriots defense surrendered a nine-play touchdown drive that covered 70 yards and ended with a Josh Allen touchdown pass to tight end Dawson Knox. The scoring play may have been unintentional, but it nonetheless put the home team up 7-0 five minutes into the game.
New England responded with a short kickoff return, but a drive that started promising. However, it just seemed as if the Patriots were determined to keep following an all too familiar script.
Penalties, unfavorable down-and-distance situations, and a Mac Jones interception on a pass intended for Nelson Agholor — New England’s first possession was a disappointment. It also set the stage for the Bills to score their second touchdown in as many drives and pull away before the first quarter was even over.
The Patriots have been down this road before.
Of their four post-bye games, three saw them fall into early holes they were unable to climb out of. They trailed the Indianapolis Colts 17-0 at the half in Week 14 and were down 17-7 to both the Bills and the Miami Dolphins in Weeks 16 and 18. All three of those games ended in defeat, sinking New England’s chances at recapturing the AFC East crown and earning a higher playoff seed in the conference.
The resulting wild card game in Buffalo was more of the same. By the time Nick Folk put his team on the scoreboard with a 44-yard field goal to end the first half, they were already down 27-0.
“You get in the playoffs, and you get down 17-zip, it’s going to be a long day,” said safety Devin McCourty following New England’s loss in Miami one week earlier.
It was indeed a long day for the Patriots at Highmark Stadium. The Bills kept the foot on the gas as if to exorcise two decades worth of demons in one night, while New England kept shooting itself in the foot in all three phases of the game. When all was said and done, Buffalo advanced to the divisional round behind a 47-17 victory.
The Patriots, meanwhile, are left with a bad taste in their mouth. One they have become familiar to, unfortunately, over the last month of the regular season; the Saturday night blowout was more lopsided than those other defeats but in a way more of the same as well.
“It wasn’t good enough,” said center David Andrews during his postgame press conference. “Got behind early. Just too much and not enough.”
Throughout the year it became obvious that the Patriots are at their best when playing with a lead and can rely on their running game and usually solid pass defense. They were not a team built for shootouts or overcoming double-digit deficits, however, which is exactly what they faced in four of the last five weeks.
The third game against Buffalo was the worst of those given its final score and season-ending nature. It also was something the Patriots knew very well could happen if they had another sloppy start.
“Whether it’s energy, focus, execution, you name it. We’re not doing anything well enough early in the games to give ourselves a chance to get into a rhythm and remain competitive early on,” said special teamer Matthew Slater last week. “If we play like that it will be really challenging, of course.”
Slater was correct. That familiar challenge proved to be too much for New England to overcome yet again.