FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone talked about “unforced errors” all week leading up to his team’s season finale.
Self-inflicted mistakes – the ones that are not caused by the opponent – are the kind that must be eliminated if a team wants to consistently win in the NFL.
The New England Patriots are the masters of not beating themselves. The Bills habitually find a way to hasten their own demise just enough to lose – especially when they play the Patriots.
New England’s 34-20 victory over the Bills on Sunday was the same old tale of two teams.
The Patriots (12-4) were good, but the Bills made it too easy for them. Let’s count the ways:
• The Bills lacked discipline on special teams, allowing two long kickoff returns in the last 17 minutes of the game to set up two Patriots touchdowns.
• Having clawed back into the game and pulled within 16-10, the Bills handed New England four free points when defensive tackle Marcell Dareus jumped offside on a field-goal attempt. New England scored a touchdown on the next play and went ahead, 24-10. It should have been just a 19-10 deficit for the Bills.
• Dareus, one of the Bills’ most valuable players, sat out the entire first half because he was disciplined by Marrone for violating team rules. Habitual lateness has been a problem, a source close to the team said. The Bills needed him for 60 minutes but only had him for 30.
• The Bills’ run defense continued to be sabotaged by lack of discipline. Even on a first-half play in which the Bills sold out to stop the run, New England’s LeGarrette Blount ripped off a 35-yard touchdown run.
• The Bills finished 6-10 for a third straight season and in last place in the AFC East for a sixth straight year. They lost for the 13th straight time at New England and for the 25th time in the last 28 meetings with the Pats.
New England earned the second seed for the AFC playoffs and is in the postseason for the 15th time in the last 20 years.
“You know you have to play solid, smart football because they’re not going to give you a lot of opportunities,” said Bills running back Fred Jackson. “They’re not going to make a lot of mistakes. You have to make a play when your number is called. Don’t expect any help from them. And you can’t help them, because they’ll take advantage of any mistake you make.”
So it was, especially on special teams and defense, where the Bills were victimized by Blount, who produced 334 all-purpose yards – 189 rushing and 145 on kickoff returns.
After the Bills pulled within 16-10, Blount ripped off an 83-yard kickoff return to the Buffalo 20.
The Patriots caved in the left side of the Bills’ coverage unit on the play.
“A couple problems on that one,” Marrone said. “We missed a tackle in the hole. … Obviously you can’t get knocked out of your lane.”
After Dareus jumped offsides, Brady threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Shane Vereen. A two-point conversion made it 24-10.
The Bills’ offense answered, driving 80 yards in 10 plays to pull within 24-17. Jackson scored on a 5-yard run.
But on the ensuing kickoff, Blount rambled 62 yards up the middle of the field to the Buffalo 40. That led to a field goal, which stretched the lead to 27-17.
“The second one there were three missed tackles,” Marrone said. “They were in position to make it and you have to make that play. We weren’t able to make it.”
Ironically, kickoff coverage is one area of the Bills’ return-and-coverage game that hadn’t been a problem this season. Buffalo entered the game ranked 29th on punt returns and 32nd on kickoff returns. They were 25th in punt coverage. But they were eighth in kickoff coverage.
New England exploited Buffalo’s 23rd-ranked run defense, rushing 43 times for 267 yards.
Blount scored on runs of 36 and 35 yards. The first one, early in the second quarter, was particularly galling for the Bills.
Buffalo was in a “46 front,” with six men on the line of scrimmage.
“It’s a run-stopping front,” Marrone said.
But it takes some patience by the defense to play it. The defenders have to wait until the ball-carrier figuratively declares which way he’s going. If there is over-pursuit and the running back finds a cut-back lane, there’s only a linebacker and a safety on the “second level” of the defense to make a stop.
Sure enough, Blount cut back to his right and Bills middle linebacker Kiko Alonso got caught to the outside. One of the safeties should have been there to stop it for a 7- or 8-yard gain but wasn’t. Blount raced up the right side of the field untouched to the end zone.
“I think we just over-pursued, and the cut-back gap was wide open,” safety Da’Norris Searcy said of the run defense in general. “We always like to be relentless to the ball, but we’ve got to make sure we cover all the gaps.”
Said Marrone: “We had some missed tackles, but a lot of it was cutting back. They had some space and found the hole and were able to cut back on us. Over-running the play.”
The Bills did not make any turnovers, which is why they still had a chance in the fourth quarter.
Quarterback Thad Lewis played pretty well considering the miserable conditions. The game was played in a cold, driving rain from start to finish. Lewis completed 16 of 29 passes for 247 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.
But there were enough mental mistakes to keep the Bills from beating their dreaded divisional rival.
“Unforced errors,” Marrone said. “It’s happened to us during the year from multiple players. I think that’s one of the things when we talk about structure and discipline that we have to do a better job of.”