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The Lane Breakdown: 10 things we learned from the Patriots’ loss to the Bills

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

The New England Patriots came up short in a hard-fought game against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, ending their season with an 8-9 record. While the Patriots did actually play pretty well on both offense and defense, some costly errors in both phases and a pair of breakdowns on special teams lost them the game.

Let’s get into our takeaways from the 35-23 defeat.

Cam Achord’s seat should be pretty hot: The Bills started the game by returning the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. Considering what the Bills had been dealing with this week, that was a storybook way to start the game. It is not what you are looking for from your kickoff team, though.

Then, after the Patriots had taken their first lead of the game in the third quarter, history repeated itself: Nyheim Hines took his second kickoff back for another score — this one from 101 yards out.

The same thing happened to the Patriots on Thanksgiving: they took the lead in the third quarter and allowed the Minnesota Vikings to return the ensuing kickoff for a TD. Allowing two of those momentum-shifting returns in one game is frankly embarrassing, and almost no team is good enough to come back from giving up 14 points on special teams alone. New England, by the way, lost by 12.

Add in the fact that another kickoff went out of bounds, giving the Bills the ball at the 40, and this might have been the worst game for the special teams unit in Bill Belichick’s tenure as head coach. In a must-win game, mistakes like that will doom you, and they were a big reason the Patriots’ season is over.

The seat of kicking game coordinator Cam Achord already appeared to be hot coming in to the game, given the team’s struggles in the game’s third phase this year. Sunday’s performance could have been the icing on the bad-tasting cake: his seat now should be scorching.

Mac Jones ends his season on a relatively high note: Mac Jones did have three interceptions on the final stat line, but he generally played well on Sunday. He made some really nice throws and good decisions, and put New England in position to score on several occasions. In fact, on the three touchdown drives that the Patriots had, he was 17-for-17.

He wasn’t always great this year, but there are signs that he is better than what we saw at points throughout the season. Is he the guy who is going to lead the Patriots back to a championship? That remains to be seen, but it does not look like the team should make any hasty decisions after this year.

All in all, you saw some improvement again after his struggles against Chicago in Week 7, and it should give the Patriots a little bit of hope moving forward. Put an experienced offensive coach in his ear and give him a few more weapons next year and see what he can do. You have to make a decision about whether or not to pick up his fifth-year option after that coming season, and you need to know whether or not he is your guy at that point.

Rhamondre Stevenson reaches 1,000 yards but fades at the end of the year: Rhamondre Stevenson ended up gaining over 1,000 rushing yards for the season, with 54 of those added on Sunday. The story was not that he hit that milestone, tough, but that he faded at the end of the year.

He put the ball on the ground far too often, and missed some blitz pickups as well. The sophomore back was arguably the best offensive player for the Patriots for stretches this season, but he needs to play with more consistency next year if he wants to take the next step to be an elite player in this league.

Getting rookie running backs Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris involved should help with that as well, as would re-signing free agent Damien Harris. At the end of the day, the Patriots cannot count on Stevenson to play close to 100 percent of snaps for a prolonged period of time.

The Patriots defense shows progress against the Bills: The Bills are a high-powered offense. So high powered, in fact, that they didn’t punt against the Patriots in the final two meetings last season (i.e. when they were not playing in a hurricane). This year was a different story, though, and Sunday in particular.

The Patriots defense did a nice job of slowing down the Bills. They still scored 21 points, but that is a good day at the office from a New England point of view. The group was also able to force two turnovers from the offense (as well as one on special teams).

The Patriots defense showed that it was good enough to play with anyone this season. With several young players on the team and only two big unknowns personnel-wise (safety Devin McCourty, linebackers coach Jerod Mayo), the hope is that the group can be even better next season.

Two franchise legends might be headed for retirement: Nothing has been decided yet, but it seems possible that both Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater might be headed into a well-earned retirement after Sunday’s game. If that is the case, the Patriots will be losing two of the best leaders this organization has ever seen.

Slater is one of the best special teams players in the history of the NFL, and he might be an even better locker room leader than player. As for McCourty, he was an All-Pro corner who made a smooth transition to All-Pro safety, and is one of the smartest defensive players the Patriots have ever had. The emotional leader for the defense, and also its de facto quarterback, he will be nearly impossible to replace.

Both players will surely be wearing red coats shortly after their eligibility for the Patriots Hall of Fame, and from a personal perspective both should be wearing gold jackets as well.

Myles Bryant just isn’t good enough to play a starter role: Bryant has had his issues all season long, and Sunday’s game was more of the same. Not only was he the closest player to John Brown on his 42-yard touchdown in the third quarter — it looked like he had the deep zone and got caught creeping up on the play — he also was partially responsible for the second kickoff return touchdown by Nyheim Hines.

Bryant had a clear shot at making a tackle on the play, but could not even slow the Bills’ return man down. Hines just simply bounced off of him, and continued on his way to score.

The third-year man is a smart player, but despite regularly seeming to be in a good position he oftentimes ends up not making the play. The Patriots upgrading his position in the secondary in 2023 should happen.

DeVante Parker can be a difference-maker: DeVante Parker has not been on the field since Dec. 12, but he immediately made his presence felt on Sunday. He consistently won in his routes, and had a good catch on a jump ball at the goal line.

Parker might not be a true No. 1 receiver, but he certainly has built some good chemistry with Mac Jones; the QB has been comfortable throwing the ball to him all season. The Patriots gave up a third-round draft pick to acquire the ex-Dolphin, and he had a tough start to the season, but he became an important piece of the offense down the stretch and should certainly be in the plans for next year.

Jakobi Meyers is the best receiver on the team and needs to be back: Meyers has been the best receiver on the Patriots for a few years at this point, and might be more valuable to them than any other team in the league. He is their new go-to-guy, after all, and his fourth-down catch on Sunday was more proof of that.

Meyers also had a ridiculous catch in the back of the end zone, and always seems to find ways to make plays — seemingly being the polar opposite of Myles Bryant in that regard.

Meyers has earned only $6 million in four years as a pro, and deserves a pay bump. It remains to be seen what his free agency market is going to be, but the Patriots need to make bringing him back a priority.

It was too little, too late for the offensive coaching staff: The Patriots finally used play-action a good amount on Sunday, something that was rather effective for them last season. Especially with the rushing attack that they had this year, one would think that they would have used it a lot more than they actually did.

They finally unveiled more of it Sunday, and — you’ll never believe this — it worked very well. Mac Jones clearly likes using play action and RPO concepts, and has been very effective with them since his days at Alabama. New England including them down the stretch this year was encouraging to see, and the results spoke for themselves.

The Patriots additionally made it a priority to get the ball to Kendrick Bourne and Hunter Henry, two players that were key for the offense in 2021. Bourne caught four passes for 45 yards, while Henry finished with six receptions for 42.

These are things that you would have expected to see from the Patriots all season, but, for whatever reason, they did not incorporate them consistently. Sunday was a change-up of sorts, but it was simply too little, too late from the Matt Patricia and Joe Judge-led unit.

New England has lots of work to do this offseason: The Patriots have a bunch of holes to fill this offseason. The offensive line needs a lot of help, the receiver room needs an upgrade, and the secondary needs a true No. 1 cornerback. Those are just a few of the spots that need to be addressed, and that does not even include any of the players who might retire, or who the Patriots might trade or move on from — not to mention the possibility of losing two of the team’s emotional leaders in Slater and McCourty.

It all adds up to the Patriots having a whole lot of work to do in the offseason. The good news is that they have had a few solid drafts in a row and have built up a staple of young talent on the team, all while owning the resources to continue the rebuild. They need to continue to add to the core in pace, and also add some veteran talent to make this team competitive again next year.

Thanks for reading this year, and for putting up with my ranting all season. It was a disappointing end to a challenging year, but draft season starts today, so don’t go anywhere!