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Observations: Even when they knew it was coming, Bills' run defense was helpless to stop Patriots in ugly loss

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Bills quarterback Josh Allen had a tough time throwing into the wind Monday night.

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The Buffalo Bills’ run defense put the thesaurus to the test Monday night.

Dominated. Disgusting. Deplorable.

Pick any adjective you want, and it applied to what the defense did against the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football.

Welcome back to your nightmare, Bills fans. It’s December, and the New England Patriots are in firm control of the AFC East. After a 2-4 start, the Patriots have won seven in a row and sit as the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

On a night when everyone inside Highmark Stadium knew what was coming, the Bills were still helpless to stop it. The Patriots won a game in which rookie quarterback Mac Jones completed just two passes – two!

The three attempts were the fewest by a Buffalo opponent in franchise history, easily topping the seven passes attempted by Cincinnati in 1969. The two completions tied three previous games for the least, most recently by Cleveland in 2009.

New England rushed for 233 yards in the first three quarters. The Patriots finished with 222 yards on the ground after being content to take some big losses at the end to run the clock out. They threw for 19 yards; the differential between rush and pass yards was the most by the Patriots since 1983.

"With the conditions, we talked about it: We knew they were going to come in and try to pound the ball," Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds said. "We’ve just got to do a better job stopping it."

The Bills didn't do that enough, as the Patriots rushed 46 times for 222 yards. 

"Once they got the run game going, we knew they were going to be running the ball a lot," safety Micah Hyde said, "and then from there, it was just getting into negative situations. They’ve got good backs. They were running downhill, mixing up a little bit on us and whatever was working for them, they were going right back to it. So they were able to (get) 5 yards here and there, broke a few for some first downs. Obviously, the long run in the first half, that kind of hurt us. In the second half we were able to get off the field and make some stops. It was just unfortunate."

That's one word to describe it, especially in an eagerly anticipated game that was overshadowed by weather, weather and more weather all night.

Forecasted winds of 27 mph, with gusts up to 40 mph, made for some wild pre-game scenes. Snow squalls would also occasionally blow through, creating a snow-globe effect that only added to the absurdity. The real-feel temperature was announced just before kickoff at 24 degrees.

During pregame warmups, Bills kicker Tyler Bass was good from 53 yards, but came up short from 58 yards kicking to the tunnel end of the stadium. Kicking to the scoreboard end of the stadium, however, was a much different story. Both Bass and Patriots kicker Nick Folk struggled to make anything outside of 35 yards, with several of their attempts blown comically wide to the right.

Throwing it during pregame warmups didn’t prove to be any easier. Quarterback Josh Allen struggled to complete even a 15-yard pass without any defenders around.

"Just a crazy game to be a part of," Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones said. "But we knew if we didn’t turn the ball over, we’d be good. So, it was just a weird day. But at the end of the day, you just get more points than the other team and it’s a good day."

Bass’ opening kickoff toward the tunnel end easily sailed through the end zone, and the Patriots didn’t even think about attempting a pass on their first two offensive possessions.

That New England was able to stay with their game plan of running the football for so long, with so much success, is a massive indictment of the Bills’ run defense.

"One thing about it, the league is not slowing down," Edmunds said. "We’ve just got to come in and stay with a positive mindset. Obviously this one hurt. It hurt bad. We’ve still got ball left. We’ve got to regroup. Our leaders have to step up and we’ve got to lead this football team."

2. The Bills made a late lineup subtraction. Reserve linebacker A.J. Klein was placed on the NFL’s reserve/Covid-19 list just hours before kickoff. That potentially impacted the game plan if the Bills wanted to use a traditional, 4-3 base defensive scheme against the run-heavy Patriots in inclement weather.

Klein had recently started games in place of either Matt Milano or Tremaine Edmunds when the Bills' usual starting linebackers were out with injuries. However, with Milano and Edmunds both healthy for the Bills' most recent game against New Orleans, Klein was back in a reserve role. He played nine snaps (15.8%) against the Saints on defense. However, he is a regular contributor on special teams, playing 36.4% of the snaps in that role against New Orleans.

On the season, Klein has played 42.3% of the snaps on special teams. Defensively, he has 30 tackles, including four for a loss, and a fumble recovery.

After the Bills' Nov. 14 victory against the Jets, Klein conducted his postgame news conference while wearing a mask. That would strongly suggest that, at least as of that date, he was not fully vaccinated, because NFL rules require non-vaccinated players to wear masks during postgame interviews.

In response, the Bills elevated linebacker Joe Giles-Harris from the practice squad, and he made his season debut. Additionally, defensive tackle Eli Ankou was brought up from the practice squad for the second straight game.

3. The Bills changed things up in the return game. Last week, rookie receiver Marquez Stevenson was activated from injured reserve and made his NFL debut against the Saints on Thanksgiving night, working primarily as the kick and punt returner. Stevenson replaced Isaiah McKenzie in that role.

Against New England, both of them were inactive. Without them, the Bills used Micah Hyde as their punt returner. His first attempt went for 8 yards in the first quarter after a line-drive punt by New England’s Jake Bailey.

4. Star Lotulelei and Spencer Brown returned to the lineup. The Bills’ veteran defensive tackle and rookie right tackle missed three and two games, respectively, while on the NFL’s reserve/Covid-19 list. Lotulelei started, but did not record a tackle in the first half.

Brown was whistled for holding in the first quarter, negating a third-down conversion by the offense.

5. Matt Breida had issues hanging onto the ball. The Bills’ running back wasn’t officially charged with a fumble, but he failed to secure Allen’s handoff, leading to a turnover in the first quarter. Breida, who also worked as the kick returner, was unable to cleanly field the ball in that job, either.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Bills gave more work to Zack Moss a short time later. Moss returned to the lineup after being a healthy inactive against the Saints in Week 12.

6. Turnovers led to points early. The Patriots opened the scoring with a 64-yard touchdown run by Damien Harris that came on the possession after the fumble that was charged to Allen.

Instead of going for the extra point into the wind, New England’s Brandon Bolden ran in for a successful two-point conversion.

The Bills’ first touchdown came after Patriots punt returner N’Keal Harry muffed a punt, which was recovered at the New England 14-yard line by Bills cornerback Gabriel Davis. On the next play, Allen threw a touchdown pass to Gabriel Davis, his third TD reception of the season.

7. Jon Feliciano’s return will have to wait. The Bills failed to activate the veteran guard from injured reserve before the game, missing he sat out again because of a calf injury that has caused him to miss five straight games. Ike Boettger started in Feliciano’s place.

Brown’s return meant Daryl Williams bumped back inside to right guard. Williams briefly left the game after he suffered an elbow injury in the first quarter. He was replaced by Cody Ford. Williams, however, was quickly cleared to return to the game by trainers.

8. Allen missed out on joining exclusive company. Allen and the Bills swept the Patriots last year. A win Monday night would have been Allen’s third straight against Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Only six quarterbacks have accomplished that previously, the most recent being Eli Manning, from 2007-11.

9. The Bills took part in the NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats” campaign. The initiative allows players to wear customized cleats for one week during the season, giving them a chance to honor people or charitable organizations close to them. The cleats are then auctioned off, with 100% of the proceeds going to the player’s chosen charitable cause.

Allen’s cleats supported the Oishei Children’s Hospital. General manager Brandon Beane wore sneakers that supported the SPCA Serving Erie County and Beane’s “Bills Muttfia,” program, which pays the adoption fee for pets adopted from the SPCA. Some other players who participated, and their causes, included: Brown (Mission 22), wide receiver Stefon Diggs (Call of Duty Endowment), linebacker Tyrel Dodson (Mission of Hope), special teams coordinator Heath Farwell (Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy), long snapper Reid Ferguson (Whirlwind Veterans and Warrior Retreat), offensive line coach Bobby Johnson (Anxiety & Depression Association of America), tight end Dawson Knox (P.U.N.T. Pediatric Cancer Collaborative), linebacker Tyler Matakevich (Show Your Soft Side) and head coach Sean McDermott (food allergy awareness and skin cancer prevention).

10. Reggie Gilliam missed the game because of injury. The Bills’ fullback was unable to play because of an ankle injury suffered in Week 12 against New Orleans. Gilliam was listed as questionable on the final injury report, as was defensive end Efe Obada, who did not play because of a hip injury. Offensive lineman Jamil Douglas and defensive tackle Vernon Butler Jr. were the team’s healthy inactives.

Inactive for the Patriots were linebackers Jahlani Tavai and Ronnie Perkins, quarterback Jarrett Stidham, tight end Devin Asiasi, cornerback Shaun Wade and offensive tackle Yasir Durant.

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News Sports Reporter

I started at The Buffalo News in 2009, and have previously been honored as one of the top 10 beat writers in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors for my coverage of the Bills. I live in Amherst with my wife, Melissa, and son, Elliott.

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