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Knee Jerk Reactions to the Wild Card Playoff: Patriots vs. Bills

Things to consider while determining the cause of death:

--This isn't going to be your typical Knee Jerk Reactions column. There's no need to dive deep on this one, with 2,500 words and a dozen videos breaking down plays to figure out what happened here. This was no boating accident. It wasn't any propeller. It wasn't any coral reef. It wasn't Jack the Ripper. In spite of what the guys on my text thread were saying last night, it's not about Mac Jones or an unwillingness to give Tom Brady a long term contract in 2019. It's about this:

There's no sense in spending the usual four or five hours I spend each week combing through replays and breaking down key moments when it all comes down to a complete inability to keep Buffalo out of the end zone. Or even get them off the field. This is two straight games against the same opponent in less than a month in which their punter didn't have to throw his uniform in the hamper afterwards. A quick spritz of Febreze and it went right back into his locker. The Bills had touchdowns on their first seven drives. Not counting kneel downs, they've scored the last 11 times they've possessed the ball against New England. And 13 times out of the last 14. At one point in this one, the Pats had run a total of 17 snaps, while the Bills had 18 1st downs. They were 6-for-7 on 3rd downs. Josh Allen had more passing touchdowns (5) than incompletions (4). There's yer problem, lady. When your defense is a batter-dipped, deep fried goatfuck of these epic proportions against their main rival, nothing else matters. Nothing.

--Simply put, the Patriots as they  are currently constituted don't have the talent to match up against this team. They're not athletic enough on defense. They lack the speed to cover sideline-to-sideline. They don't have anyone who can spy a mobile, run-threat quarterback. So when one does defeat their effort to control the pocket and breaks containment, it's either a big gain on the ground or receivers shaking coverage and it's a big gain through the air. Until they can set an edge on each side of the line, cover all 53 1/3, and find someone with the speed and size to be the cheat code that nullifies Josh Allen's God Mode, this will happen twice a year and this team will never see another home game in the playoffs. 

--But it goes beyond just being vulnerable to mobile quarterbacks. When they line up against this Bills offense, there are mismatches across the board. JC Jackson is the one indispensable defensive back they have right now. And Stefon Diggs is his Kryptonite.

--They were thin at defensive back last night, but that's not a tough break scenario you can forgive them for. That's a lack of talent. Joejuan Williams is a 2nd round pick in his third season. He should be a reliable, every down cornerback. But instead he extended his dual career streaks of never keeping up with a receiver or successfully defending a pass:

--Here's that in graphic form, just to give you another angle on how little chance Williams had on this one, with another vertical route drawing the post safety. Allen knew before the snap where he was going with the ball. And if he didn't take advantage of the mismatch, he would've been committing QB malpractice:

The thing about that stat too is that it seemed like for a lot of the night, the Patriots were dropping into Cover-3, conceding the underneath stuff and focused on preventing the deep strikes. Though you could be forgiven for not noticing. When they were in straight man, they simply couldn't win a single matchup. After Isaiah McKenzie violated Myles Bryant's Constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment back on Boxing Day, it looked as though they tried to put Bryant on anybody else. With the same results:

--We can always find some refuge in the warm and comfort of knowing that this was the No. 2 defense in the league in terms of points and yard allowed. But that's just iron sulfide. Unless and until they can occasionally, once in a while, every so often mix in a stop or two against this particular opponent, none of what they do to the Jets and Jags will matter. Keeping Jackson is Priority One. But Priorities Two-through-Infinity is finding young, fast, tough DBs who can stay with elite, physical receivers. Use that great pin setter of cap space to clear deadwood like Williams off the roster. Accept that certain core veteran leaders who have been mainstays in all the winning around here are no longer part of the future, like Dont'a Hightower. Trust that two recent draft picks in Anferee Jennings and Ronnie Perkins - who have essentially been redshirtted until now, can be a major part of rebuilding the Front-7. That at the very least, they can see to it that Allen has less time to throw than it takes to hard boil an egg:

--But however it's done, this defensive unit needs an overhaul. There is a lot you can do to scheme it up over the course of a long season. But there's a limit to how effective you can be with card tricks, distractions and pulling a quarter out from behind Zach Wilson's ear. At some point, you have to be better than the person you line up across from. And until the roster sees a significant upgrade, that's not the case in your two (and if you're lucky, three) Buffalo games.

--I guess we can say the same thing about the other side of the ball, just to a much lesser extent. The line is still solid. At least the parts are in place if they want to reshuffle for next year and maybe call it a day on the great Isaiah Wynn experiment. They very much have to figure out how to get Jonnu Smith out of the Escape Room he's been in all season. And I'm talking about more than just his obligatory one Jet sweep per game that does for three yards. But a lot of what limits them can be solved by Mac Jones making the year-to-year improvement that any reasonable person expects he will make. He's proven he's a legitimate NFL quarterback. He's physically tough enough to have endured an 18-game season. And mentally tough enough to have withstood the best the NFL can throw at a rookie and the moment never seemed to big for him. Not once. Not even in his first playoff game, on the road, on a night that was colder than liquid nitrogen. So he checked the boxes on the most important punch list the 2021 Patriots had. 

--What he isn't right now though, is good enough to carry a team without top-tier wideouts. I've been saying for most of my adult life that quarterbacks make wide receivers, not the other way around. And I stand by that. At least when it comes to truly great quarterbacks. Tom Brady won all those titles here with Troy Brown, David Patten, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola and the like. Not a highly drafted, highly paid, freakishly athletic stud in the bunch. But last night we saw once again a defense that was able to handle the vertical passing route with standard Cover-2 or Cover-2 Robber with a safety dropping to take away crossers. So the Bills were able pack the underneath and middle, and then come crashing downhill on all Jones' checkdowns and limit yards after the catch. It's not a matter of arm strength or some lack of accuracy on deep balls. Just last week against Miami we saw Jones have the best game of his career on throws of 20+ air yards. It's about getting him a target who has to be accounted for on the third level, draw coverage and create space for everyone else. He can always use an elite slot guy as long as he's running this system. But until he's got someone who's going to win a Tale of the Tape against top cornerbacks, he's never going to be able to carry his team when they need him to.

--And no, I don't mean N'Keal Harry. The fact he dressed over Kristian Wilkerson told us everything we needed to know about how they planned to win this thing. The fact they only rushed 20 times points out the utter futility of the decision. And the fact that in his last game in a Patriots uniform Harry was targeted zero times is the perfect punctuation mark on the end of his career here. This cements his status as the worst draft pick of the Belichick Era. Congrats, Ras-I Dowling. You're off the hook.

--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: "Fellows, let's be reasonable, huh? This is not the time or the place to perform some kind of a half-assed autopsy on a fish." - Mayor Larry Vaughn, "Jaws"

--I want to get mad at Brandon Bolden for that egregious, N'Kealian dropped pass, but to what end? Not only did it not crack the Top 100 Things That Went Wrong list, he's completely transformed himself at the age of 31 into the pass-catching running back we never knew he had in him. Never forget, that in the toughest of times, when James White was lost for the season, there was one set of footprints in the sand, and they belonged to Bolden.

--I'm bracing myself for the negativity that will surely follow a loss this bad. And much of it will be deserved. In fact, I should probably go along with the mob, in that way that when all the animals are running in one direction you're supposed to go with them, because they surely sense that disaster is coming. But I refuse. I'm standing my ground. The Patriots franchise took a huge step forward this year. They revamped the roster, had a phenomenal draft that can still yield more results going forward, aren't likely to lose any coaches or key free agents (I'm assuming they'll franchise Jackson), and most important of all, since it was the key to the whole season, found the quarterback they can build around. A rebuild that could've taken five or even 10 years has only taken a couple. And they will be better next year then they were this year. At least that's what I'll keep telling myself as I watch the rest of the playoffs and ugly-face weep into my IPAs.

--Remember when I said I wasn't going to go on for long talking about this game? 

--Anyhoo, thanks for another season of reading the Knee Jerks. I've been doing these in one form or another since before Barstool existed. And I think I've missed one game (a Thursday nighter in 2008, when I didn't get home until after 3 a.m. and I just couldn't get to it) since I started writing them here in 2004 or so. They're an investment of a lot of time and effort, because it's important to me that they don't read like any other content that's available. So I sincerely appreciate the support. And feedback from guys who go out of their way to say they look forward to them. I'm not about to wish away the rest of the season, offseason, spring and summer. But I cannot wait to be doing this again in September. 

--We're onto the Senior Bowl, the Combine, Free Agency, the draft …