In Patriots’ playoff loss to Bills, it wasn’t Mac Jones who failed. The defense went ice cold

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen scrambles during the first quarter against the New England Patriots at Highmark Stadium.
Richard Morin
USA TODAY Sports+

After a week of speculating whether rookie quarterback Mac Jones would make or break the New England Patriots’ playoff performance, it was actually the Patriots' defense that failed the team.

With temperatures in single digits and feels-like conditions dipping below zero, the Buffalo Bills had no trouble executing against a hapless Patriots defensive unit for a 47-17 first-round playoff victory Saturday.

The Patriots allowed four Bills touchdowns on the hosts’ first four possessions. No playoff team has done that since the San Diego Chargers allowed the Patriots four consecutive touchdowns to open their 2018 divisional playoff game. It was also a first for the Patriots in any game under head coach Bill Belichick, who joined the franchise in 2000.

Buffalo had seven meaningful possessions Saturday and scored a touchdown in each of them. The technical exceptions were a one-play drive where the Bills took a knee before halftime and another kneeling drive at the end of the game.

"Every drive we couldn't come up with a stop was frustrating," Patriots linebacker Matt Judon said after the game. "It wasn't just one drive. It wasn't one play. It wasn't one single player. It was everything and it was the whole game.

"Everything was kind of frustrating, honestly."

The Bills amassed 300 first-half yards as quarterback Josh Allen did whatever he pleased on the frozen turf of Highmark Stadium. He had supreme protection from his offensive line and dominated the passing game with a series of successful crossing routes. Allen, who threw for 308 yards, had more touchdown passes (5) than incompletions (4).

And when Allen elected to scramble, the Patriots had no answer. They consistently took poor pursuit angles and applied ineffective arm tackles. The Bills averaged more than nine yards per play in the first half.

The Bills went 19 straight drives without punting against the Patriots, a streak dating back to their 33-21 win at New England Dec. 26.

"Sucks to end the season that way," Patriots defensive captain Devin McCourty said after the game. "I don't think we got a stop on defense tonight. Not how you want to end a season. Not how you want to play a playoff game. ... You practice all week and you shouldn't perform like that.

"Embarrassing."

New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) is sacked by Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (98) during the first half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

The Patriots managed just a field goal in the first half, but the embarrassing loss hardly fell on Jones' shoulders alone. He led an impressive opening drive but saw a would-be touchdown pass snatched away by a diving Bills safety Micah Hyde. Patriots receiver Nelson Agholor elected not to high-point the ball and did not see Hyde streaking toward the play.

During the opening drive of the third quarter, Jones had a pass tipped for a second interception. He targeted tight end Hunter Henry in a tight window but the ball deflected off one defender and landed in the arms of another.

Jones (24 for 38 passing, two touchdowns) could have played better, but he never even had a chance.

Ironically, it was the Patriots' defense that spurred them to a seven-game win streak this season. When the New England offense struggled for momentum, defense routinely kept them close enough to eke out victories.

After the Patriots' bye Week 14, however, that win condition totally disappeared.

The Patriots struggled to stop the Indianapolis Colts Week 15, allowing 20 unanswered points for a 27-17 road loss. A week later, Allen carved them up at Gillette Stadium for 314 yards and three touchdowns.

And after a brief reprieve in the form of a 50-10 Week 17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Patriots' defense again struggled during a 33-24 loss to the Miami Dolphins in which New England never held a lead.

Finally, the Patriots' 47 points allowed Saturday were the most a Belichick-coached New England team has ever allowed in the playoffs.

"It's just hard when you lose a handful of games down the stretch," Judon said. "We've got to go back and stay focused. Not saying we were overlooking things, but when we have that type of success we have to lock in even more. You have to lock in even more when you get on top."

Players who carried the defense all season appeared to fade down the stretch.

Judon, a free-agent signing, was noticeably less effective and on multiple occasions took poor angles against Allen. Rookie standout Christian Barmore had dominant performances before a Week 18 injury prematurely ended his regular season and foreshadowed an unsteady playoff appearance.

Defense has always been the calling card for Belichick, but there are questions surrounding this Patriots unit heading into 2022. They need to take a hard look at whether wholesale changes are necessary.