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Poor kickoff coverage plagues Patriots in season-ending defeat in Buffalo

Related: Instant analysis from Patriots’ 35-23 loss to Bills

Throughout Bill Belichick’s Patriots tenure, New England’s special teams unit has always ranked near the top of the league. This year, however, things have been different. That showed in Buffalo on Sunday, as Nyheim Hines returned two kickoffs for touchdowns - including the opening play of the game.

“Two breakdowns,” Bill Belichick said postgame.

“We just didn’t go a good job of using our hands and getting off blocks,” Matthew Slater added. “It comes down to fundamentals. You got to be able to shed a block, you got to be able to diagnose a return and avoid to the ball and we just didn’t do it. It’s very disappointing and it shows up in this setting, It just feels like you let the team down.”

The 14 points were the difference in the 35-23 game, as the Patriots offense was not able keep pace.

“Obviously disappointed with how the kicking game went today,” Slater said postgame. “Just a little bit shellshocked. Trying to process that. I feel like we didn't give our team a chance to win the game and that's very disappointing.

“As a captain of that unit, I feel like we cost the team the game. So, it’s very difficult.”

The two return touchdowns brought the total to three allowed this season. From 2000 to 2022, New England allowed just six kick return touchdowns and just two in their previous 227 games, according to ESPN.

New England was without specialists Brenden Schooler on Sunday, and DaMarcus Mitchell - another key figure on their kicking units - left the game early with a head injury. Additionally, Jake Bailey remained out leaving kicking duties to Nick Folk.

Since Bailey landed on IR, the kickoff coverage became a bigger issue as the Patriots struggled to get the ball into the end zone. Entering Sunday, Folk had 89.3 percent of his kickoffs returned compared to Bailey’s 39.1 percent.

Bailey, who landed on the reserve/suspended list earlier this week, believed he was healthy enough to return last week, according to a statement his agent released. Bill Belichick felt differently.

“He’s not eligible to play,” Belichick said. “He was on designated to return and he wasn't able to play. The suspension is a whole other thing but he wasn't able to come back.

“He was unavailable. That’s the bottom line.”