FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – There are plenty of ways to rationalize this one. The Bills have never won at Gillette Stadium when Tom Brady played a full game. The Patriots haven't lost a meaningful December home game to conference opponent since 2002. And the Bills are still very much alive for the playoffs heading into the regular-season finale at Miami.
So Sunday's 37-16 loss to the Pats wasn't the end of the world.
But it doesn't feel like the beginning of a genuinely new era, either.
Yes, if they beat the Dolphins and break the playoff drought at 9-7, it will be tempting to forget this day and anoint Sean McDermott as the next great Buffalo coach, a refreshing departure from the parade of mediocrities who came before him during the drought.
But for any critical fan with loftier standards for the future, this one had to be tough to take. The Patriots were beatable. The Bills played admirably on both sides of the ball at times. Jordan Poyer had a pick-six against Brady. Tyrod Taylor played well, by his standards. Kelvin Benjamin, playing on a bad knee, had his best game as a Bill.
Still, it wasn't good enough. The defense played well for a half, but faded in the second in the decisive moments as Brady and the offense found a rhythm. The offense had a good day, but Sean McDermott didn't trust them to gain a yard on fourth-and-1 at the Patriots' 32-yard line early in the fourth quarter.
The Pats had marched to a TD to take a 23-16 lead late in the third quarter, getting the final 1-yard run from Mike Gillislee. Benjamin, who had five catches for 70 yards, made a 35-yard catch on the Bills' next possession, putting them in Pats territory. But the drive stalled at the Pats' 32 and the Bills were faced with a fourth-and-1.
McDermott brought on Stephen Hauschka, who badly missed a 50-yard field goal attempt.
It was a hugely disappointing decision by McDermott, the kind of timid coaching we've seen so much of during the drought. It was a defensive coach's call. You could see Dick Jauron, Gregg Williams or Rex Ryan doing the same thing.
"We went for it early in the game, didn't get it," McDermott explained. "The game was close at that point, we wanted to come away with points. Early in the fourth quarter there. I think it was a seven-point game. I wanted to come away with points. Obviously, it didn't work out."
This wasn't the Colts or Dolphins. It was the Super Bowl champs with the greatest quarterback of all time on a roll. You don't kick a field goal when you're down seven in the fourth quarter against them. The Bills have been the best running team in the NFL over the last three years. The Patriots are last in yards per rush allowed.
I told McDermott the call had the sense of a coach who forgot who he was playing against. Why would you want to give the ball back to an assassin like Brady there?
"I didn't want to give him the ball," McDermott said. "I wanted to come away with points. And I'm very aware of who we were playing."
Brady quickly reminded him, taking the ball at his own 40 after the missed field goal and mercilessly driving the Pats 60 yards to a TD in seven plays. Dion Lewis, who had 129 yards rushing, finished the drive with a 12-yard TD reception, running through a weary and seemingly dispirited defense.
You don't give this Pats offense extra chances. As it was, the Bills lost seven points on a couple of video replays, including a regrettable reversal on a short TD pass from Taylor to Benjamin just before halftime. It's hard to survive that kind of adversity against an average NFL opponent. Against the Patriots, at Gillette, it's next to impossible.
McDermott has engendered a resilent quality in his team. But the field-goal attempt betrayed a conventional coaching mentality, which Bills fans have seen too much over the year. It wasn't as bad as his decision to punt in the snow against the Colts, but it was a curious decision just the same.
The players talked around it, but reading between the lines it was apparent that the offensive guys weren't thrilled with the decision to kick.
"I don't know. I mean, it's above my pay grade," said guard Richie Incognito. "I just do what I'm told."
"I can't answer," said tailback LeSean McCoy. "That's not my call, you know. I'm a solider and I go out there and I battle. I don't make the calls."
Taylor said he could see both sides of the issue and that he just tries to execute the plays that are called. Experience teaches you how to decode this stuff. When players say it's above their pay grade and they're soldier doing what they're told, they're generally talking about the geniuses who actually make the calls.
When you've seen it time and again, you have to call the coach out – whether it's Gregg Williams punting from the Pats' 32 or Mike Mularkey rolling out Drew Bledsoe on fourth down or Dick Jauron fumbling for the challenge flag.
I don't care if they failed earlier on fourth down. McCoy and Incognito are multiple Pro Bowlers on the team that leads the NFL in rushing yards since they arrived in 2015.
"Next time we'll get you a headset and you can call it," Incognito said, laughing.
The Bills played the Patriots twice this season and failed to score a touchdown. They scored a combined three points in the second half of those games. You don't beat the Patriots with field goals. Not in Gillette. Not in December with anything at stake.
"It's a hard way to beat Brady," Incognito said. "When you make four trips down there and come away without seven points all four times, it's a very, very difficult thing to do. Got to get sevens."
Well, they're still alive for the playoffs. If they win in Miami and end the drought, this loss will be largely forgotten. But for any Bills fan who longs for real change, this loss had to be discouraging. They fell apart in the second half at New England. The breaks went against them and McDermott reverted to conservative old coach mode in the clutch.
Playoffs or not, the Bills are a team in transition. McDermott and Brandon Beane have made it clear that they're looking to the future.
But how confident can you be when, in the moment of truth, the coach does the same old thing, with his head stuck in the past?