By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — In football terms, a week is a year. Two weeks is a lifetime. Three weeks might as well be a century.
That is to say: Life moves quickly in the National Football League.
So it feels like ancient history to reflect back upon the Patriots’ previous meeting with the Bills, a game which took place a whole three weeks ago, and a game that resulted in two defensive leaders from Buffalo reacting with disgust and contempt when asked if they were embarrassed by their team’s showing against a divisional opponent.
It feels even more like a distant memory after Sunday, a day when the roles had reversed, and it was the Patriots’ defense left feeling embarrassed while walking off their home turf.
In this game, Bill Belichick’s defense had few answers for Josh Allen’s offense, in a game where the visiting Bills did not punt a single time en route to winning 33-21.
The only Buffalo drives that didn’t result in points involved Buffalo failing on fourth down from the 1-yard line, running out the clock before halftime, and taking two kneeldowns in the game’s final minute.
The Bills drove 61 yards for a touchdown on their opening possession — a drive where Devin Singletary set the tone by taking Kyle Dugger for a ride up the sideline for several yards. They drove 68 yards for a field goal on their second. Given a short field off a turnover, the Bills were stopped on fourth down near the goal line … but they drove 37 yards for another touchdown before halftime.
In the fourth quarter, with New England desperately needing a stop after cutting Buffalo’s lead to five points, the Bills went 75 yards on 13 plays for a touchdown that essentially sealed a critical divisional victory.
Time and time again — to start the game, before the half, coming out of halftime, late in crunch time — the Patriots’ defense needed to make a play. Time and time again, the defense couldn’t get the job done.
The game featured some of the usual suspects. Stefon Diggs was his usual self, Dawson Knox caught a touchdown, and Allen made some spectacular throws while throwing for 304 yards with three touchdowns and rushing for 64 yards on 12 carries. But it also featured an unexpected burst from Bills receiver Isaiah McKenzie.
McKenzie entered the game with 38 receiving yards on the season. He was inactive — a healthy scratch — for two weeks at the end of November and beginning of December. He caught one pass per game in his last two games, averaging six yards per game. He caught zero passes in six of his first 10 games this season.
On this day, though, McKenzie was almost unstoppable. He caught 11 passes on 12 targets, recording 125 receiving yards and scoring the first touchdown of the game. This is McKenzie’s fifth NFL season. His previous single-game high for receiving yards was 65. He had never caught more than six passes in any game prior to Sunday.
Cole Beasley’s and Gabriel Davis’ absences were supposed to leave the Bills shorthanded for this one. They ended up helping.
On top of the McKenzie showing, the Patriots couldn’t make enough stops in critical moments. The Bills were held to 6-for-12 on third down … but they also went 3-for-4 on fourth down.
The first fourth-down conversion for Buffalo resulted in McKenzie’s touchdown giving the Bills a 7-0 lead.
The second conversion took place at the Patriots’ 34-yard line, with Allen hitting Diggs in stride on a slant for 23 yards. The two would connect on an identical pass a few plays later for a touchdown.
The third and final fourth-down conversion was a massive one. It came in crunch time, with the Bills leading by five with 4:27 left to play. Allen took a snap at the Patriots’ 34-yard line, faked a handoff, then rolled out to the left on a naked bootleg. Allen made defenders miss and ended up picking up 8 yards.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) December 26, 2021
Allen converted a third-and-10 three plays later with another pass to Diggs, and the Bills scored the putaway touchdown two plays after that.
These were all game-changing moments, and the Bills did what they wanted, when they wanted.
The defensive day was complicated by some miscues that aren’t considered acceptable in Foxboro. J.C. Jackson — who spent this week talking about being a lockdown corner while pondering names for his own island of one-on-one coverage — dropped a would-be interception that was thrown directly to him in the fourth quarter.
For the second time today, J.C. Jackson nearly had an interception pic.twitter.com/zjxLuLYd0G
— Ben Brown (@BenBrownPL) December 26, 2021
Rookie defensive tackle Christian Barmore also made one of Buffalo’s fourth-down conversions much easier when he jumped offside on what would have been a fourth-and-7.
Of course, as is the case with most losses, this one wasn’t entirely on the defense. Mac Jones was just 14-for-32 passing for 145 yards, with a couple of picks. N’Keal Harry and Brandon Bolden each had drops. Trent Brown took a 15-yard penalty, and David Andrews was penalized for taunting to negate what would have been a 15-yard penalty helping the Patriots. The team went just 1-for-10 on third downs (but 5-for-6 on fourth down, while going 3-for-3 on red zone trips).
The offense could have been better. But the defense failed to force a punt for a full game for the first time in the entire Belichick era.
From @ESPNStatsInfo: The Bills did not punt today. They are the first team with 0 punts in a game against a Bill Belichick coached team (474 games, including playoffs).
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) December 26, 2021
“I wish I knew,” defensive captain Devin McCourty said when asked why the team hasn’t played well for two weeks. “It’s too late in the season not to play your best football. And I would say these last two weeks have come down to that.”
The lone positive linebacker Kyle Van Noy could find came from the fact that the season is not yet over. Belichick spoke in generalities about how the team needs to be better.
That much was obvious for the duration of Sunday’s game. In a contest where one stop or one forced turnover could have made all the difference, the Patriots couldn’t do it. Not once.
As a result, the division is now out of their control. Buffalo needs only to beat the Falcons and Jets — both at home — to secure back-to-back division titles for the first time since 1990-91.
And the Patriots now have to worry about just making the playoffs. While they should be able to handle the 2-13 Jaguars next week, they’ll be facing the Dolphins in Miami in Week 18 in a game that could end up having some massive playoff implications for both teams.
For now, though, the Patriots can’t really worry about the division or the postseason. They’ll need to figure out how to simply be better. As recently as nine days ago, people in this region were concocting fantasies about this team playing in the Super Bowl. But things change fast in the NFL. And the 2021 Patriots are learning that in a most painful fashion.