ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- An hour after the game ended, the wedding party from a halftime ceremony posed for pictures, the flowers still fresh, the bride still radiant. There was to be no fairy-tale ending, though. The couple's happy day won't go down as one for the Buffalo Bills (3-1), who lost their first game of the season, 16-10 to the New England Patriots (4-0), in what will mostly be remembered as a fairly routine reminder that even on one of their worst days, the Pats are still almost always the best.
But for Buffalo, this game should not have a routine aftermath. This was not the same old Bills team that has now lost 31 games to Tom Brady, and that is clear mostly because Brady didn't look much like himself Sunday -- and consequently, the outcome was not decided until the final moments. This was one of the most unsightly offensive performances of the Brady era, a jumble of confusion forced by the Bills' defense. Brady completed just 18 of 39 passes for 150 yards and an interception. The Patriots had just 11 first downs. They went three-and-out seven times. Brady averaged just 3.8 yards per attempt. He did not have a touchdown pass.
The Patriots won because Josh Allen -- before he was knocked out by a hit to the head by cornerback Jonathan Jones that Bills coach Sean McDermott thought merited ejection -- revived all the concerns that accompanied him during this rookie season. He was careless with the ball, heaving three interceptions, when he wasn't holding onto it too long to take four sacks. At least early in the game, whether it was his inclination or the game plan, he looked for a deep pass constantly, eschewing what would have been easier, confidence-building short throws to get in a rhythm. One of Allen's selling points is his aggressiveness, but he repeatedly stumbled over the line that divides assertiveness and recklessness.
"He didn't take what the defense was giving him," McDermott said. "He's got to learn from that."
And they have to do it immediately, because the defense is certainly playoff-caliber, particularly in what looks, with one quarter of the season over, to be a wide-open AFC wild-card field. The Patriots ran for just 74 yards. The Bills' excellent secondary essentially erased any pass catcher not named James White. Phillip Dorsett had two receptions for 10 yards. Josh Gordon had three for 46, but 31 of those yards came on one reception. Julian Edelman caught four passes for 30 yards. The shutdown was so complete that it led to one uncomfortable thought: Now we know why the Patriots rolled the dice on Antonio Brown. A similar defensive effort from, say, the Kansas City Chiefs, married to a more functional offense, would have been too much for the Patriots to overcome on Sunday.
An even marginally less mistake-marred offensive performance would have won the game for the Bills, in fact. In the aftermath, it is tempting to consider all the offensive talent the Bills have passed on in the draft, most prominently JuJu Smith-Schuster. But today was not about lack of talent. It was about a failure to execute. Allen sat at his locker for at least 10 minutes after the game just thinking. He is in the concussion protocol, his availability for next week unknown. His backup, Matt Barkley, finished the game and had a chance to win it, but his interception with 1:34 remaining and the Bills on the Patriots' 39-yard line completed the loss.
"There are no moral victories, but we stood toe to toe with them and we know what we are capable of doing," safety Kurt Coleman said. "We didn't win a Super Bowl winning this game and we sure didn't lose the Super Bowl losing this game. You look at us from Week 1 to Week 4 right now, we've been getting better and better. We just can't shoot ourselves in the foot and that goes to all three phases of this game."
The Bills have overhauled their roster, their facilities, their reputation under McDermott. He and general manager Brandon Beane have infused the Bills with professionalism and a plan, and the franchise is clearly on an upswing. But games against the Patriots are measuring sticks for every team in the league, most especially for the ones that have to go through them again and again just to get out of the division. The Bills are further along than the rest of the AFC East -- they are, in fact, where the New York Jets hoped they would be. But in his clipped responses, it was clear McDermott knew Buffalo had let a chance slip away and had at least part of the team exposed. This, then, is a pivotal moment for the Bills and for Allen, whenever he returns to action. How McDermott gets Allen to regroup -- and how, long term, Allen gets his game under control -- will determine how far Buffalo goes this season.
"I was asked earlier in the week in terms of a measuring stick and I just know where we're headed as an organization and I'm confident in that," McDermott said. "We've got to continue to grow, continue to learn from these types of opportunities and these types of challenges, and give them credit. They won the game, right? We learn from this and we continue to grow and be honest with ourselves as to why we didn't get the result that we're looking for. If we do that, we're moving in the right direction, but we've got to do that."