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Patriots 29, Bills 25: Five things we learned

Buffalo’s rough October continued in Foxborough, as the Bills dropped below .500 in the division

NFL: Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills are in a spot of trouble as they near the mid-way point of the 2023 NFL regular season.

After allowing quarterback Mac Jones and the New England Patriots to march down the field with ease for a game-winning touchdown to cement the Bills’ 29-25 loss in Foxborough, MA, the Bills have lost two of their last three games, and are now 1-2 in divisional contests. Their 4-3 record is the team’s worst after seven games since the 2018 season, when Buffalo stumbled to a 2-5 start behind then-rookie quarterback Josh Allen.

There’s plenty to be concerned about for fans as they wait for a team with Super Bowl aspirations to figure out this mid-season stretch of frustration and realize their potential. If we learned anything from Sunday’s loss to New England, it may be a lengthy wait.

Buffalo’s defense is undermanned, and it showed

The Bills were missing four opening-day starters on their defense in this game. Defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, linebacker Matt Milano, and cornerback Tre’Davious White are out for the season, and defensive tackle Ed Oliver missed this game with a toe injury. They also ended up losing Milano’s replacement, rookie linebacker Dorian Williams, who was relieved by Tyrel Dodson. The end result: the Patriots were efficient throughout and the Bills rarely were able to counter with big plays of their own in a losing effort.

That showed, in particular, on the final drive of the game, after Allen and the offense had found a pulse and scored a go-ahead touchdown with less than two minutes remaining. On the most critical possession of the day, the Bills yielded a 34-yard gain on the first play, a 14-yard reception on a 3rd & 8, 18 yards on the two ensuing plays, a defensive pass interference, and then ultimately the go-ahead score. It was an easy drive for the Patriots, and Buffalo didn’t have the manpower to counter in any meaningful way.

This iteration of the Bills offense can’t overcome slow starts

One could argue that the game shouldn’t have been as close as it was late. Divisional games tend to skew more toward what we saw today than blowouts, but the point remains: had Buffalo managed to escape the first half with more than two field goal tries (one of which was missed, badly), the game script may have been more favorable for Buffalo.

In their last three first halves (six total quarters of play), the Bills have scored 10 points. They scored 49 points in the second halves of those games, which is much more on par with what we’ve come to expect from a Bills offense over the past four years, but still not the blistering pace previous years of the Allen-led offense were capable of.

Coupled with the aforementioned note of the defense being short-handed, it’s been a recipe for disaster. Buffalo has competed to the end in all three games, but frankly, they’re lucky to have won even one of them. Head coach Sean McDermott talks about playing complementary football on a weekly basis, and Buffalo’s offense, by definition, has been incapable of doing so since the Miami game.

Found efficiency with Dalton Kincaid

That said, Buffalo’s offense did look markedly improved in the second half, and it coincided with a heightened focus on involving rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid in the passing game. Allen was only able to connect with Stefon Diggs on 6-of-12 targets, and with second receiver Gabe Davis on one of five. He was 8-for-8 on throws intended for Kincaid, with those tosses gaining 75 total yards.

This was the sort of performance fans — and likely the team itself — envisioned when Kincaid was drafted: he was the consistent chain-mover for the offense, the dependable receiving option that kept the offense’s heart beating.

It’s past time for offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey and Buffalo’s offensive brain trust to recognize that Kincaid, as well as running back James Cook, have shown enough on a consistent basis to be more regularly-featured members of the team’s passing plans. There’s no reason to de-emphasize Diggs; it’s just imperative that the team lean on its two most talented, young secondary options a bit more.

It’s not a great time to be playing again on a short week

The defense is banged up, the offense is struggling, and the team on the whole is having a hard time figuring out how to win games. They play a plucky Tampa Bay Buccaneers team on Thursday Night Football in 99 hours from the time of this article’s posting. Expecting anything more than another ugly, scratch-and-claw effort, even on their home field, is probably a bad idea. But it’s near-imperative to the team’s playoff outlook that they find a way to win that game.

This team is not a ton of fun to watch

Remember when the Bills were a wagon of a team, featuring a play-making defense, an unstoppable offense, and were built around a young and hungry core of players?

This year’s Bills outfit is still capable of resembling those previous teams, and thoroughly did so just three weeks ago in their 48-20 throttling of the Miami Dolphins. But on weeks like this, the team’s overall age shows; we’ve been watching the biggest-name players for more than a half-decade now, and when the going gets tough, their act starts to wear thin quicker.

It’s a bad feeling when the team is unable to avoid game-altering penalties in big spots, or you catch their most talkative players jawing with opponents that know full well a little chatter can rattle this team. It’s a worse feeling when the inconsistent offense’s best hope for gaining yards is Allen flopping his way to a so-so penalty call, and it’s the worst feeling when you watch the defense give up yet another late score to waste an Allen miracle comeback.

The Bills are playing like they’re trying to finesse their aging roster out of the proverbial dog days of the schedule, and now that they’re 4-3, they can no longer afford such finesse. This iteration of the Buffalo Bills needs to re-discover the fun, and not play as if they’re anxious to escape a 60-minute outing unscathed.