New England Patriots

BUFFALO, NEW YORK - JANUARY 15: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on against the Buffalo Bills during the first half in the AFC Wild Card playoff game at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

There’s no one way to explain that pig snout of a Patriots defense on Saturday night.

It’s not purely a talent issue. J.C. Jackson is a second team All-Pro, Matt Judon amassed 12.5 sacks, and Christian Barmore often looked like one of the best defensive rookies in the league.

It’s not all about coaching problems, either. Bill Belichick and his staff proved able to outclass younger, less experienced coaches and flummox talented opposing quarterbacks over the course of the Patriots’ seven-game winning streak. They allowed the second-fewest points per game in the regular season, despite stumbling down the stretch.

But in the end, against a real opponent with a real quarterback, the Patriots defense was utterly nonexistent, a far cry from the unit that was focused, cohesive, and productive during the team’s hot stretch. For almost half the season, the defense keyed the Patriots’ resurrection as a playoff team. They needed to be the key to the Pats making any kind of run in January. On Saturday in Orchard Park, they were the opposite.

What the hell happened to these guys?

  • Same Old, Same Old

    Jan 15, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Buffalo Bills running back Devin Singletary (26) runs for a touchdown during the second quarter of the AFC Wild Card playoff game against the New England Patriots at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

    Jan 15, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Buffalo Bills running back Devin Singletary (26) runs for a touchdown during the second quarter of the AFC Wild Card playoff game against the New England Patriots at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

    Instead of a return to the defense we saw in the middle of the season, familiar problems resurfaced and converged into a stunningly inept finale. The Bills scored touchdowns on all seven possessions with Josh Allen under center, and netted 482 yards of offense overall. They became the first team in the Super Bowl era to go a whole game without punting, kicking a field goal, or turning the ball over.

    Josh Allen and the Bills played their best football, and also got no real resistance from the Patriots. And, so, that’s what happens.

    When you’re this ineffective on defense – they actually, literally, could not have been worse – it illustrates how far behind the opponent you really are. And how many changes need to be made in order to return in 2022 with something remotely competitive on a playoff stage.

    “Yeah, well I think we have to take a good long look again, not at just one game, but at all 18,” Belichick said in his end-of-season video conference Sunday morning. “You could argue that there were elements of last night’s game and some other games, but you’re right. Last night’s game was the least competitive game that we played last year. So again, is that what we are, or is that a bad night? We’ll see when we start playing again next year, I guess.”

    Season-ending losses have a way of exposing your flaws at the worst possible time. On defense, it was the Patriots’ inconsistency (to put it nicely) stopping the run; inability to pressure the quarterback at a high level, especially when Judon and Barmore aren’t getting home; and lack of depth in the secondary.

    The Bills ran at will. Middling back Devin Singletary looked impossible to tackle, or even touch. Allen averaged 11 yards per carry when he took off. Somehow, the quarterback didn’t have a perfect passer rating, despite going 21-of-25 for 308 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. He “only” had a 157.6 rating, just short of a perfect 158.3.

    Nine different Bills caught a pass. One of them was a tackle. Five different players caught a touchdown. Dawson Knox had two. The Bills’ personnel advantage on offense compared to the Patriots’ defense was obvious from the start, all over the field.

  • Player Problems

    BUFFALO, NEW YORK - JANUARY 15: Isaiah McKenzie #19 of the Buffalo Bills runs out of bounds after catching a pass against Joejuan Williams #33 of the New England Patriots during the first quarter in the AFC Wild Card playoff game at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

    BUFFALO, NEW YORK – JANUARY 15: Isaiah McKenzie #19 of the Buffalo Bills runs out of bounds after catching a pass against Joejuan Williams #33 of the New England Patriots during the first quarter in the AFC Wild Card playoff game at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

    Belichick’s recent string of bad drafts came back to bite him. That, or he didn’t even give his guys an opportunity.

    Joejuan Williams, a 2019 second-round pick who can barely crack the active lineup, couldn’t keep up with Gabriel Davis. Linebacker Josh Uche played six snaps. Chase Winovich didn’t play at all.

    The linebackers that did play, physically couldn’t keep up. There wasn’t much complexity to what the Bills did on offense. Allen wisely took high-percentage completions, often to wide-open guys in the flat or in space, and they just outran people. Bills head coach Sean McDermott and Brian Daboll seemed to go into the game planning to exploit the Patriots’ lack of speed. It worked, all night long.

    So not only was the actual personnel a problem for the Patriots, but their personnel decisions are worthy of a crooked eye in the aftermath of that beatdown. Couldn’t they have used more out of a guy like Uche, who has actual, legit speed?

    Don’t tell me these kids are that bad, that somehow they would’ve made it worse.

  • The Buck Stops…

    BUFFALO, NEW YORK - JANUARY 15: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on against the Buffalo Bills during the first half in the AFC Wild Card playoff game at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

    BUFFALO, NEW YORK – JANUARY 15: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on against the Buffalo Bills during the first half in the AFC Wild Card playoff game at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

    Ultimately, the problem rests at the feet of Belichick. He’s still the undisputed leader of the overall football operation. He spent over $53 million in guaranteed money on the defense alone. Excluding the team’s pivot to a more collaborative approach at the 2021 draft, Belichick is solely responsible for many of the picks that came up woefully short on Saturday night.

    And even his big free-agent signings fell off, or never rose up in the first place. Judon produced exactly zero sacks and one QB hit over his final five games, the kind of disappearing act that convinces you he had to be playing through an undisclosed serious injury. Defensive tackle Davon Godchaux rarely made an appreciable impact as a run defender. Defensive back Jalen Mills was a curious fit from the start and could perhaps find a better role in a retooled 2022 team, but didn’t contribute much in year 1 of a four-year deal.

    But there’s no question that the retooling absolutely has to happen. It won’t come on Sunday, nor does it have to. Belichick will take his time, but certainly needs to arrive at some major changes eventually.

    “I think we need to, and we’ll go back, and take a longer view of just everything,” Belichick said. “Certainly last night’s game was important and not in any way trying to minimize that, but at the same time, there were 17 other meaningful games, so 18 in all, that I think we really need to look at and see how we can do a better job of everything, coaching, playing, schematically, whatever adjustments we need to make there and so forth, and just in season planning for next year. And so, that’ll be a thorough process as it always is.

    “Again, the day after the season with the players and the rosters, definitely not a time to make those decisions on any level. The team level or the player level. We all need to step back and again, catch our breath, take a longer view of things and at some point, we’ll talk about certain situations, players that aren’t under contract, players who whatever their future is, or is with the team or whatever their individual situations are, those will all be dealt with at a later point in time.”

    It’s disheartening for those who have followed the Patriots over the last decade-plus, because this is far from the first time we’ve looked at the Patriots defense and said they need to get younger, faster, more athletic. But if this ass-kicking isn’t a wake-up call for Belichick and the front office, what is? Changes need to happen. It’s time. Enough is enough.

    Unless they want Josh Allen to pitch another perfect game.