The finality of NFL Week 18 set in Sunday at Highmark Stadium. It did in a game played against the AFC East champions. It did in a game played for Damar Hamlin.
The New England Patriots fell to the Buffalo Bills by a score of 35-23, ending the regular season with an 8-9 record and in need of afternoon help elsewhere to reach the postseason. Help never arrived.
Here’s a glance through what took place in Orchard Park.
A 1 p.m. ET kickoff leads to two returns to the end zone
The opening kickoff off the foot of Patriots veteran Nick Folk could have gone several ways. It went 96 yards the other way, as Bills returner Nyheim Hines broke contain from the hashes to the right sideline for a 7-0 lead and an eruption.
It marked the first time Buffalo had taken back a game’s opening kickoff for a touchdown in 18 years. It also marked the first time New England’s special teams had conceded such a return during head coach Bill Belichick’s tenure.
Hines wasn’t done. The trade acquisition from the Indianapolis Colts bounced off tackles for another house call from 101 yards away in the third quarter — a feat last accomplished by fellow running back Leon Washington and the Seattle Seahawks in 2010. A kickoff out of bounds ensued.
Jones battles to finish with three touchdown drives, three turnovers
A three-and-out was how the finale got underway for New England’s offense. It saw Mac Jones pressured by Buffalo’s Shaq Lawson and sacked by Gregory Rousseau before the punt unit stepped on.
The team captain responded on the next drive, which spanned nine plays, 74 yards and ended with wide receiver Jakobi Meyers’ toes grazing the end zone for the tying touchdown. It stood as the impending free agent’s team-high and career-high sixth of the season. A stretch of seven consecutive completions ended under duress on the next series for his starting quarterback. Another nine plays and 74 yards followed, however, as DeVante Parker was found for a touchdown that tied things again. And the former Miami Dolphins wideout would soon be found diving down the left sideline for another to make it 28-23.
Jones finished 26-of-40 passing for 243 yards with three touchdowns and a pair of fourth-and-1 conversions. But he was intercepted three times after halftime by cornerback Tre’Davious White and linebackers Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds.
Patriots sophomore crosses 1,000 yards on the ground
Patriots running back Rhamondre Stevenson entered Sunday just 14 rushing yards shy of 1,000 for the season.
That milestone would be reached on a counter run in the second quarter. In the process, he reached the post-2000 franchise company of Antowain Smith, Corey Dillon, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount.
The offense’s sophomore leader in touches and scrimmage yards handled six carries for 54 yards and five catches for 28 yards against the Bills. A fumble was recovered by center David Andrews along the way. Starting in the New England backfield was Damien Harris, who ended his contract year with 52 scrimmage yards and a drop-turned-interception.
Sacked twice, Allen finds time downfield for three scores
Josh Allen had taken what was given when the Bills last crossed paths with the Patriots as the calendar turned to December. He did more of the same come January. Even if it took five seconds to get the football out with a trio rushing the pocket.
The past All-Pro and present Pro Bowl quarterback completed 19-of-31 passes for 254 yards with three touchdown strikes to tight end Dawson Knox and wide receivers John Brown and Stefon Diggs.
His first interception against the Patriots since November 2020 crossed the wire prior to intermission. It came with heat from outside linebacker Matthew Judon and defensive tackle Christian Barmore. Allen was sacked twice by the visiting defensive front, beginning with Deatrich Wise Jr. and continuing with Daniel Ekuale. The finale saw Buffalo’s offense go 7-for-12 on third down.
Fumble recovery follows McCourty’s 35th pick in New England’s secondary
The Patriots downgraded cornerback Jalen Mills on Saturday due to a groin injury that has lingered since Thanksgiving versus the Minnesota Vikings. The position went forward with Jonathan Jones, Marcus Jones and Myles Bryant starting on Sunday.
Five different Bills wide receivers drew targets from there, including the decorated Diggs and Gabe Davis both drawing double digits. Explosive plays of 28, 42 and 49 yards were among them.
Reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week Kyle Dugger handled work at nickel in addition to safety for the Patriots’ secondary. And Devin McCourty, accruing his 205th game in the regular season, broke up a pass in the end zone before intercepting another at the doorstep of it. His 35th pick kept the score tied at halftime. A fumble by running back Devin Singletary would also find the hands of the All-Decade selection.
From 2008 into 2023, Slater lends a hand
Down 35-23 with 8:34 remaining on the game clock, Matthew Slater made his presence felt where he has since arriving out of UCLA in the fifth round of the 2008 draft.
New England’s 37-year-old special teams captain sent Buffalo’s Taiwan Jones into a bouncing punt. There to fall on the live ball was linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley at the 35-yard line.
But one turnover gave way to another as one season gave way to another.