But the Patriots, for all their shortcomings, never quit this season. It matters. And Mack Jones, a second-year quarterback who was spectacularly failed by the coaching staff this season, enters the offseason with fresh memories of his most dominant performance of the season, which included three touchdowns. He also threw three interceptions, two in the fourth quarter in desperation, but that still counts as progress.
The end has come for the 2022 Patriots. It wasn’t terrible, leaving real hope for progress next year with some obvious changes. It’s the offseason, and rightly so.
Some additional thoughts after a quick review. . .
Three players worth watching
Players suggested in unconventional preview: Stefon Digg, Devin McCourty, Jakobi Meyer.
Devin McCourty: McCourty and Matthew Slater, two cornerstone Patriots from the second leg of a two-decade dynasty, are expected to retire. Nothing was confirmed post-match, though Slater’s tears — and David Andrews’ sad exit from the podium for him — suggest a farewell is coming for the special teams ace. The emphasis in what could have been their final game after 28 combined seasons with the franchise is their leadership and class, and they both deserve that credit. But Sunday was a reminder that they are both still great players. McCourty picked off Josh Allen late in the second quarter for his 35th career interception and most among active players and recovered a Devin Singlery fumble that was recovered by Jonathan Jones deep in Bills territory with 9 minutes, 26 seconds left in the third quarter. Meanwhile, on an overall awful day for the Patriots on special teams, Slater added to the turnover by shoving his blocker on Taiwan Jones to force a fumble that was recovered by Ja’Whaun Bentley. McCourty and Slater making plays, like they always do, and maybe for the last time.
Nyheim Hines: When the Bills’ return man ran 96 yards for a touchdown — the team’s first since Hamlin’s collapse — I had two thoughts as his teammates cheered for him: 1.) This is an instant piece of sports history, and one we’ll remember forever ; 2.) The Bills will win by 100. When Hines returned his second touchdown, this one 101 yards at the 6:53 mark of the third quarter, to put the Bills up 21-17, I had another thought: The Patriots really miss Brenden Schooler, who was inactive with a hip injury. I’m not sure who played the role of Hasson Graham – injured Troy Brown’s fill-in when Desmond Howard came out of the game in Super Bowl XXXI. Miles Bryant was the only Patriot to help him in the second.
Devante Parker: In his first game since suffering a concussion in Week 12 against the Cardinals, Parker led the Patriots on offense with six catches for 79 yards and two scores. His first touchdown was a 2-yarder to make it 14 in the second quarter. His second was truly impressive, catching a 26-yard pass from Jones to put the Patriots up 28-23 early in the fourth quarter. He finished his first season with the Patriots with just 31 receptions, but the version we saw of him Sunday could be a significant asset next year.
Offense of the game
There is no gentle way to put it. Tony Romo was awful during the CBS broadcast. It started during the pregame, when the network’s No. 1 NFL color analyst spoke incomplete sentences over intense, compelling images of emotional Bills coaches and players preparing to play their first game since Hamlin’s collapse. He took the same near-coordinated route on Hines’ first touchdown return. I don’t believe he was disingenuous, but the word salad he offered at a time when nothing needed to be said was, at the very least, a serious misunderstanding of the moment and his role. If you don’t have something to say, don’t be afraid to hope you find it. In the game itself, he wasn’t much better, declaring on at least three separate occasions that “this is the season” when the Patriots went down on third downs. When Romo became a phenomenal analyst in 2017, he made the game even more enjoyable to watch. On Sunday, during the game everyone wanted to watch, he made it less so.
Three notes were written in the margins
Expected Final Score: Bills 26, Patriots 20
Final score: Bills 35, Patriots 23
Raymond Stephenson rushed for 54 yards on six carries, eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark for the season with an 18-yarder in the second quarter. He finishes with 1,040 yards, becoming the Patriots’ first 1,000-yard rusher since LeGarrette Blount in 2016. Good for Stevenson, the best on this Patriots offense this season. . . Stefon Diggs torments the Patriots like they’re wronged him and he’s dedicated his life to revenge or something. He finished with 104 receiving yards on seven catches, including a spectacular 49-yard touchdown with just under nine minutes left in the game that left Jonathan Jones — one of the Patriots’ fastest — in his rearview mirror, an object that wasn’t as close as it seemed. . . . Jakobi Meyer scored the Patriots’ first touchdown on a nifty catch in the first quarter. He certainly doesn’t have the legacy of Slater or McCourty, but if this was his last game as a Patriot — he’s a free agent in the offseason — the former undrafted free agent had to be proud.