If Saturday night's smackdown of the New England Patriots felt unexpected and, worse, unprecedented, that's because it was.
In Bill Belichick's historic 22-year reign as head coach in New England, never before had the Patriots lost by more than 19 points in the postseason. In fact, the Pats had suffered just one loss by a larger margin of deficit in the two-plus-decade tenure than their 47-17 shellacking by the Buffalo Bills -- a 31-0 loss to the Bills in Buffalo in Week 1 of the 2003 season.
That blowout loss was the beginning of something special, a 14-2 season and a second Super Bowl run in three years. Saturday's defeat could well be the beginning of something great as well for this next generation of Patriots, but it won't be seen for some time.
"That's not the way we envisioned tonight going," Patriots veteran Matthew Slater said after the game, per The Athletic. "The thing about being in the playoffs: When it ends, it's kind of like a crash landing."
New England returned to the postseason in 2021 after a rare absence last season, its first without Tom Brady. With rookie quarterback Mac Jones replacing Cam Newton and a slew of high-priced free-agent acquisitions in tow (Matt Judon, Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith), the Patriots started slow, losing four of their first six, before rattling off seven straight to put themselves in a position to not only get back in the playoffs and win the AFC East but seize home-field advantage, a staple of the Brady-era Pats.
But Belichick's boys crumbled down the stretch, losing four of their last five, including the lopsided loss to their division rivals on Super Wild Card Weekend.
"We have to take a good long look again not just at one game, but all 18," Belichick said Sunday morning in his season-ending presser. "You could argue there were elements in last night's game in some other games.
"But you're right: Last night's game was the least competitive game that we played last year. Is that what we are or is that a bad night? We'll see when we start playing next year, I guess."
The Patriots had beaten Buffalo in Orchard Park earlier this season, holding Josh Allen and the Bills to 10 points, 16 first downs and 230 total yards in absurd, windy conditions. In near sub-zero temperatures Saturday night, Buffalo flipped the script, scoring a season-high 47 points, reaching the end zone on each of their first seven drives and never punting or turning the ball over.
"Obviously they did a great job," Belichick said Saturday evening of the Bills offense, per Boston.com. "We just couldn't keep up with them tonight. Certainly deserved to win.
"Well coached, team executed well, and we just couldn't do much of anything. So we'll just pick up the pieces, go back to work here and find a way to be more competitive."
Jones, a contender for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, was sharp and confident on New England's first drive of the game, but saw his first deep attempt picked off by a diving Micah Hyde. From there, Buffalo bowled over the rookie and the Patriots, who, like their coach described, were outplayed and couldn't keep up.
"I wish I could have put a better performance out there so we could push together through the playoffs, but it's something I'll have to live with," Jones said. "It'll motivate me for next year, but I wish it could happen tonight."
Though the Patriots sounded shell-shocked Saturday night after Buffalo's barrage knocked them out of the postseason in the Wild Card Round for the second time in as many trips, the future is bright. With Jones getting needed playoff experience, a roster riddled with grizzled veterans and Belichick still at the controls -- the coach said Sunday it "would be accurate" to say he'll be back in 2022 -- New England is set up for another era of consistent competitiveness, even if it didn't show on Saturday evening.
"There's a lot to look forward to and be positive about and learn from. There's nothing to hang our heads about," Jones concluded. "There's nothing to feel sorry about. It's just a learning experience to get ready for next year."