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Six Takeaways From the Patriots 27-21 Loss to the Bills



New England Patriots Jalen Reagor, right, gets past Buffalo Bills place kicker Tyler Bass (2) on a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game in Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday, Dec. 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

The New England Patriots entered their Week 17 game against the Buffalo Bills with little to play for. New England entered the game with a 4-11 record, eliminated from the playoffs weeks ago. Buffalo on the other hand still had a chance to win the AFC East with two games remaining. But the Patriots were still playing for both pride and future jobs.

The final score found the Bills walking away with a 27-21 win, but it certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort on the Patriots behalf. Here are six takeaways from Sunday’s game.

Incredible Start on Special Teams

New England’s special teams unit has come under criticism all season, deservedly so. But they got things started in incredible fashion in Buffalo. Jalen Reagor fielded the opening kickoff for New England, and returned it 98 yards for a touchdown. Twelve seconds into the game, the Patriots had a 7-0 lead. It was New England’s first kickoff return for a touchdown since Oct. 21, 2018, when Cordarrelle Patterson took one 95 yards to the house against the Bears. The last time a Patriots player returned a kickoff for a touchdown on the first play of a game was on Dec. 5, 2004, when Bethel Johnson did so against the Cleveland Browns.

The Patriots had won their previous 11 games when returning a kickoff for a touchdown.

Nothing is More Important Than Ball Security

Bill Belichick has sounded like a broken record in stressing the importance of ball security this season. The message has still not sunk in. New England’s four offensive possessions following that opening kickoff resulted in: interception, punt, interception, fumble. With more than five minutes remaining int he first quarter, the Patriots offense had already turned the ball over three times.

Not only did the turnovers eliminate the opportunity for the Patriots to put points on the board, they put Buffalo in excellent position to score themselves. Buffalo’s average starting filed position following those three Patriots turnovers was inside New England’s 22-yard line. It is tough to be successful when the other team is repeatedly beginning in scoring position. So, it should come as no surprise that ultimately the New England Patriots were not successful on Sunday.

The first Patriots possession of the second quarter resulted in Bailey Zappe’s third interception of the game. Rasul Douglas returned the pick 40 yards for a touchdown. At the time it gave Buffalo a 20-7 lead. New England’s offense was to blame for all 20 points, while scoring none of their own.

Defense Continues to Impress

Despite New England’s offensive struggles, the defense continued to perform well. Those three prime scoring opportunities resulted in just one Buffalo touchdown. The Patriots defense held the Bills to field goals on the other two. In the second half Buffalo scored on their opening possession, but went scoreless the rest of the way.

Buffalo QB Josh Allen finished with 169 passing yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. He also fumbled twice, though the Bills were able to recover both. WR Stefon Diggs was held to 26 yards on four receptions. His long gain of the afternoon was nine yards. The focus of the Patriots defense has always been to take away the other team’s best weapon, and they were successful in doing so on Sunday.

Alex Austin’s First NFL Interception

The Buffalo Bills drafted Alex Austin in the seventh round of the 2023 NFL Draft. After not making the team, he signed with Houston before making his way to New England. Austin played his first game against the team that drafted him on Sunday, and he registered his first NFL interception.

Any interception in the NFL has to be exciting. But to register the first of a career against the team that let him go had to be a bit extra sweet for Austin. He is one of the New England Patriots players making the most of their opportunity to impress before the season is through.

Chad Ryland’s Struggles Continue

Chad Ryland went from goat (not GOAT) to hero against the Broncos in Week 16. After missing a field goal and an extra point, Ryland booted the game-winning field goal for New England. Ryland’s confidence should have been sky high after booming a clutch field goal for a victory. However, things did not improve for the rookie kicker against the Bills.

Ryland missed his first field goal attempt of the day, a 47-yard attempt that missed wide left. It was the Patriots last possession of the first half and would have cut Buffalo’s lead to 20-17. It also significantly shifted momentum heading into intermission. Ryland did get one more chance to kick a field goal, and missed that one as well. However, the Patriots were penalized for delay of game, so the attempt did not officially count. New England opted to punt instead of trying another field goal.

Replacing Ryland in the offseason has to be under consideration at this point.

2024 NFL Draft Position

For those rooting for a high draft position more than the New England Patriots to win games at this point, Sunday was good. Not only did the Patriots lose, but the Arizona Cardinals (4-12) upset the Philadelphia Eagles. This temporarily moves the Patriots into third in the draft order behind only Chicago (via Carolina) and Washington. The Bears have already clinched the top selection. The Commanders and Patriots have virtually the same strength of schedule (the primary tiebreaker) so if both lose next week, the order would be determined by how their opponents perform. But at this point it is still possible for the Patriots to be selecting anywhere from 2-to-6 with a win, or 2-to-3 with a loss.

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