ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Playing in an emotionally charged stadium, where fans and Bills players celebrated safety Damar Hamlin's remarkable recovery after his cardiac arrest in Cincinnati, isn't what cost the New England Patriots a playoff berth.
The Patriots, who could've made the postseason with a win, were instead left blaming themselves for miscues and an inability to rise to the moment as reasons for a 35-23 loss that knocked them out of contention for the second time in two seasons and just the fourth time in coach Bill Belichick's 23-year tenure in New England.
“The game’s a brutal game,” Patriots center David Andrews said. “Have to take the punches. Got to roll with them. We were able to take some and do some things. But we didn’t have enough in the bag at the end.”
The Patriots had to play from behind from the start, when Nyheim Hines returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. They battled back to take a short-lived 17-14 lead on Nick Folk's 24-yard field goal, before Hines returned the following kickoff 101 yards for the go-ahead touchdown midway through the third quarter.
“It’s hard to process,” special teams captain Matt Slater said. “Been playing this game a long time, and never been a part of anything like that. It’s obviously very disappointing. As a captain of that unit, I feel like we cost them the game. So it’s very difficult.”
The Patriots defense also allowed Bills quarterback Josh Allen to complete long touchdown passes to John Brown (42 yards) and Stefon Diggs (49 yards) in the second half.
“We knew it was going to be an emotional game for them, an emotional environment,” Andrews said. “We battled back, kept fighting. Tried to answer every time. But didn’t answer in the end.”
The Bills spent much of the past week devastated in watching Hamlin go into cardiac arrest and be resuscitated in the first quarter of a since-canceled game at the Bengals on Monday.
Hamlin has since experienced a remarkable recovery in which he's breathing on his own, and watched the game from his hospital bed at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
While Hamlin celebrated with each score and defensive stop, the Patriots were left without answers over how they closed the season losing five of their final seven.
Belichick, who remained tied with Don Shula for the most playoff appearances in NFL history with 19, disputed the notion that the emotions surrounding the game contributed to the Patriots allowing big plays.
“Breakdowns,” Belichick said. “We’ll just leave it at that.”
The Patriots did get emotional when faced with the uncertainty about whether veteran leaders Devin McCourty and Slater have played their final games in New England.
At age 37, the two-time All-Pro Slater, on a one-year $2.6 million contract, is wrapping up his 15th season after being drafted by the Patriots in 2008. Slater has appeared in 223 games, which is second only to Tom Brady for the most games played by a Patriots player. He hasn’t missed a game in five seasons.
“It’s been the experience of a lifetime,” Slater said while wiping his tears with a towel.
McCourty, a 2010 first-round pick out of Rutgers, turned 35 in August after signing a one-year, $9 million deal. McCourty has started all 205 games he’s appeared in, missing just five regular-season games. He ranks fifth on the Patriots’ list for games played.
“It didn’t hit me until we were sitting there and they were taking a knee,” McCourty said. “Just the emotions of everything that comes in. You go through a season and not knowing your future. I just said to myself today to go out there and give it my all. And see where it got me.”
Andrews said the Patriots were proud of the way the competed in the final game. But that didn’t make it any easier to handle the result.
“There’s no participation trophies,” Andrews said. “There’s no attaboys, good job, in my opinion. You play the game for one thing, and that’s to hold up that trophy at the end.”
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