By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Oftentimes after a big playoff loss, you can run the whole game back through your head and play the “What if?” game. If only this ball had bounced a different way, if only that penalty hadn’t been called, if only these plays happened differently, then perhaps the final result would have gone the other way.

But in this game? This one? Brother, you could play the “What if?” game for an hour and a half without getting the Bills’ margin of victory down to single digits.

Likewise, a team’s playoff losses generally tend to be memorable from start to finish. Name a play, a situation, a moment, and the entire picture reappears in your head as if it’s being played through a reel-to-reel. Not so in this case.

What did the Gabriel Davis touchdown make the score again? Gabriel Davis did catch a touchdown, right? What about Emmanuel Sanders’ long bomb — did that make it 33-3? Or were the Bills already up by 30 at that point? Who was responsible for letting that O-lineman get wide open in the end zone? Wait — Devin Singletary scored two touchdowns?

Who can keep track, really? The whole night was a whirlwind. The once-proud champs stood in the center of the ring and absorbed haymaker after haymaker from the hungry up-and-comers from Buffalo. Unfortunately for New England, football has no bell, and it has no knockouts. It just has a clock. And this clock on this particular night must have felt like it was ticking at half-speed for everybody on the Patriots’ sideline.

While all of that makes for an overwhelming night for the Patriots, the one resounding message left after the 47-17 drubbing is simple.

The Patriots are not in the upper class of the AFC. In fact, they’re not particularly close.

They went 2-3 this season against teams that made the playoffs. One of those wins involved a once-in-a-lifetime wind storm (which was their MVP on that night), and the other came against a Titans team that was without Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown. They count, sure. But they’re not particularly convincing victories. And Saturday night showed that the gap between the Patriots and a true contender is vast.

People will point to one thing or another: the quarterback, the coach, the defensive staff, the special teams, the linebackers, the defensive backfield, etc. But the reality is that there’s not one or two quick fixes the Patriots can make to get anywhere close to where they used to operate. They’ll have to scratch and claw and outthink and outcompete their opposition just for the hope of getting back to the functional level at which they used to idle.

Bit jarring, yeah? The Bills’ blowout provided that kind of thump for New England.

Nevertheless, we must leftover, so here we go.

–I’m not going to quote myself. That’d be lame. BUT, after the win over the Jaguars I wrote that the Patriots had fulfilled the preseason expectations that just about everybody in the world had for them heading into the season: win 10, maybe 11 games, and make the playoffs. Maybe win a playoff game if they’re lucky. It was after that Jaguars win, I wrote, that we’d get to see “the fun part,” where we’d find out “if the Patriots have what it takes to actually exceed expectations — and to what extent they may be able to do that.”

(Ah, jeez. Quoted myself. That’s on me. That’s my bad, people.)

Well. They went out and got thumped by the Dolphins, who had nothing to play for, who were a day away from firing their head coach, who also improved to 3-1 vs. the Pats in the post-Brady era. (Miami’s been bullying the Patriots since Week 17 of the 2019 season, really.) Then they flew to Buffalo and got blown out of the building.

So we found out that this particular band of Patriots was indeed not capable of exceeding expectations. And the level to which they fell short of exceeding expectations should be legitimately alarming. Throw the Jaguars game out (because they’re a joke, and you should never measure yourself against a joke) and the Patriots lost four games after their Week 14 bye — four critical games — and they weren’t particularly close. Three of the losses came by double digits. The final one came by 30.

In a place where the standard used to be “the season starts at the AFC Championship Game,” it shouldn’t slip all the way down to “well they won 10 games and made the playoffs.” That’s Colty. Don’t forget that.

–In that same regard, I’ve never seen the kid gloves come out faster than they did for Mac Jones after he ended the first playoff drive of his career by throwing an interception in the end zone. Was it a good play by Micah Hyde? Sure, of course it was. Great play. But the pass could have been a lot better. The evidence for that is that the pass was picked off.

If you really want to, watch how Nelson Agholor adjusts his route at the 5-yard line. While looking up for the ball, he cuts in toward the middle of the field. In that spot, the quarterback’s going to want to lead his receiver the other way, toward the boundary, away from the safety, to give the receiver more time and space to make an uncontested catch. He also might want to look off the safety for even a split-second before throwing to the intended receiver.

If you can forgive the blurry picture taken from heaven, it can be laid out rather simply. Leading Agholor on the green path is a TD. The red path is a risk of an INT. We know where the pass ended up.

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

That Jones was locked in on Agholor the whole play also made Hyde’s job a little bit easier. And in the playoffs, a little bit means a lot.

Again, in a game where the opponent won by one-thousand football points, it doesn’t matter. And a 35-yard bomb on a 7-degree night does have a legitimate degree of difficulty. But why the kid gloves? This is the NFL, and this is the playoffs. A pick in the end zone is a pick in the end zone.

–Perhaps now that Mac Jones is no longer a rookie, the kid glove application will fade away. In a way, the patience and calmness that a lot of people viewed his rookie season was slightly out of character but nevertheless a good thing for all of New England this year. Just like the team around him, Jones more or less met expectations as a rookie.

But he’s officially a veteran now. So the next time he throws a pick in the end zone in a playoff game, we don’t all have to pretend like the interception was an act of God, one that Jones had absolutely no control over and one that was simply destined to happen. We don’t do that for literally anybody else — in fact, we’ve been known to have a laugh or two when other QBs make such errors — and now Mac can join the crowd.

–If you were to play the “What if?” game, I’d let you go this far. The game might have been different if Isaiah McKenzie’s fumble counted on the opening kickoff and if Josh Bailey had magically recovered it. The game might have gone a little differently if Brandon Bolden hadn’t dropped a wide-the-eff-open pass on the opening drive:

Brandon Bolden drop (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

(What if Brandon Bolden wore sleeves on this arctic night? Just something to think about.)

I’ll also allow you to wonder what would have happened if the Patriots went for it on fourth-and-1 on their second possession. Punting it away while already trailing by 14 points felt like a case of “let’s lose later instead of losing right now.” But even that’s unfair, because realistically, even if the Patriots picked up the yard, they’d probably end up facing a fourth-and-8 and … punting a few plays later.

That’s about as far as I’ll let you take the “What if?” game. Hope it was fun for you.

–This was the first sign of the night that the Patriots had themselves a problem in Josh Allen.

Matthew Judon played it right, going into his drop while keeping his eyes locked on Allen. As soon as Allen broke to scramble, Judon broke too. The two players were 15 yards apart. Judon ran directly at Allen’s sternum. The play was there to be made to limit this to no gain. But Allen made the simplest of cuts, breaking to his left and breaking Judon’s ankles in the process. Judon was stuck flat-footed in the open field. Allen was gone.

To be fair, I don’t know what the right personnel looks like to limiting Allen in a situation like that. But the Patriots definitely don’t have it.

–Likewise, when Big Bad Christian Barmore is letting Allen slip through his hands …

… it’s just simply not ever going to be your evening.

–It was pretty appropriate for the Patriots to get penalized for having 12 men in the huddle in the fourth quarter. The season began with the Patriots running around like headless chickens, having too many men on both sides of the fields (sometimes after timeouts), having too few men on the field for a Saints touchdown, burning timeouts, and generally looking like an unprepared team. They masked all those mistakes during the seven-game winning streak, but they crept back in over the final four weeks of the season. The too many men penalty on Saturday night was a nice homage to theme of this season.

–I’m not a big sports guy so help me out here: Shouldn’t RB1 win a race to the edge against a 260-pound defensive end?

Mario Addison chases down Damien Harris. (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

Feels like the answer is yes. Yes he should.

–Obviously, it’s sports, and funny things happen. But if you didn’t know that this game was over the second that the Patriots elevated De’Vante Bausby and D’Angelo Ross from the practice squad, then you sure are one cheery optimist.

That’s not to dump on two players making a living in the NFL. Not at all. But it was indicative of the total lack of depth in that secondary. (At the same time, I’m not sure how different the scoreboard looks if Jalen Mills plays every snap in that one.)

So it was kind of inevitable that this hole would show up to hurt the Patriots. I just didn’t expect it to be so tough to watch — on back-to-back plays, no less!

(Josh. Man. Listen. How are you going to do that to a man wearing No. 13? How? Rude.)

Having the more respectable jersey number of 39 didn’t help Ross on that one, though.

–Josh Allen said his first touchdown pass was intended to be a throwaway.

I don’t believe him. I have seen Josh Allen launch passes into the crowd. This was not one of those passes.

–Probably the lone success story of the night was Kendrick Bourne. He impressed in his first season with the Patriots, and he had by far the best game of any Patriot in this one. He was targeted eight times, catching seven passes for 77 yards and two touchdowns. He drew what should have been a 15-yard facemask penalty, and he deftly dodged a flying cylindrical object gifted to him by the amiable Bills fans near the end zone. You can’t teach that kind of poise.

–One other positive: The game looked cool. The clouds of breath looked fake, like when you created a cold weather game on Madden back in the day. Good night for breath clouds, baby.

Micah Hyde (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

The Bills and Patriots lined up for a snap (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

Mac Jones (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Oh yeah. That’s the good stuff.

–Wait, this guy didn’t make a GIF that just shows people breathing, did he?

(GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

Yup. He did. Named it “breathing dot gif,” too.

Sick.

–That was a lot of words. Close to 2,000 of them, this little handy-dandy word counter tells me. If you read them — and if you read any of the other words over the past year — then thanks for that. I can’t imagine having to read something I wrote. Seems like a whole thing.

But we’re not ending here with words. We’re ending with pictures — moving pictures that could sum up this game better than I ever could.

Mac Jones’ fake spike (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

Yup. That sure does say it all.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.