What is Bill Belichick's plan to get struggling Patriots back 'above the line'?

The bottom line with the New England Patriots, whose playoff hopes are dwindling, is that the buck stops with coach Bill Belichick. Billie Weiss/Getty Images

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. Buck stops with Bill: Late in the second quarter of the Patriots’ 24-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Thursday night, after the team’s shaky clock management led to burning their final two timeouts and ultimately coming away with no points, longtime television play-by-play man Al Michaels said on the Amazon Prime broadcast, “That timeout strategy was not New England-like.”

Indeed, the Patriots have traditionally been masters of “situational football” for the majority of Belichick’s 23-year tenure as head coach.

But in an alarming turn that highlights the depths the Patriots' offense has fallen, what unfolded Thursday was a repeat of what had happened just seven days earlier in Minnesota.

Things that were staples of Belichick’s teams are no longer a given. Poor situational awareness in critical situations, penalties and botching fundamentals such as a simple handoff on third-and-1 on the opening drive of the game have become the norm.

In one telling statistic, the Patriots have committed 23 more accepted penalties than their opponents this season, which is the greatest differential of any team in the NFL.

Furthermore, the offense entered this week ranked 31st out of 32 teams in red zone success, 25th in third-down conversions, 30th in interception percentage, 26th in sacks taken per pass play and 27th in first downs.

Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, among others, sounded alarms that the Patriots’ simplistic approach lacks the necessary timing and detail. The result has been that quarterback Mac Jones looks like a different player from his promising rookie season in 2021.

In early September, when questioned about the unconventional decision to replace departed offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels with Matt Patricia and Joe Judge as leaders of the staff despite their primary background coming on defense and special teams, respectively, Belichick told Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy: “I think they are both good coaches. Ultimately it’s my responsibility, so if it doesn’t go well, blame me.”

The buck stops with Bill, as it always has.

And while the Patriots (6-6) are still alive in the AFC playoff picture entering their Dec. 12 game against the host Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football, even Belichick would likely agree that they aren’t going anywhere meaningful until they rise above what he once termed the “below-the-line” level.

Of all the news conferences Belichick has held over the years, that one from December of 2013 has been bookmarked to reference in times like these.

On that day, Belichick said: “Everybody has to understand that there’s a ‘below-the-line’ level. When it’s below the line, we can’t live with it. It hurts the team. We have to stay above the line. It’s as simple as that.

“That line is drawn at every position with various criteria. It’s not scientific. There’s no textbook on it, how to handle each situation … That’s a critical part of coaching in any sport, particularly football, but any sport. When you do things as a coach or a player that cause you to lose, then you won’t be in this job long.”

They are timely words to revisit, framing the most pressing question facing the Patriots: What is Belichick’s plan to get his team, particularly the offense, back above the line?

2. Weekend off: After playing three games in 12 days, which included a game on Thanksgiving, Patriots players are off through Monday. The recovery time is critical, and one theme among players in the locker room late Thursday night was to use the break to look inward, be accountable, and return with a clean slate. “We’ve got some time. We need to try to regroup, reset, figure some things out and decide what the rest of our season is going to be,” longtime safety and captain Devin McCourty said.

3. Bourne’s breakdown: Jones averaged 2.6 air yards on his 22 completions Thursday, which was the second-lowest mark in the NFL over the last two seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That reflects the “quick game” Jones referenced regarding his sideline outburst -- which might have been dictated by a short-handed situation along the offensive line -- while receiver Kendrick Bourne lamented the team’s inability to get the ball further down the field.

“Mac needs more time. He’s obviously running around, so it’s hard to get the ball downfield when you can’t really have time for him to throw. No knock to the line, it’s just what we need to work on,” said Bourne, who noted the Patriots’ inability to dictate terms to the defense, especially on third down.

“The receivers can’t do nothing if the ball can’t get downfield. If we can’t throw it past five yards, it’s just going to be a long game.”

4. Raiders flex: Tuesday marks the deadline for the NFL to decide whether to keep the Week 15 Patriots at Raiders game on Sunday night. It’s hard to imagine the game staying in prime time after the bland Patriots performance against the Bills, and with more attractive matchups to choose from across the league (Bengals-Buccaneers among them). A Raiders loss to the visiting Chargers on Sunday would further solidify things heading in that direction.

5. Hunter’s accountability: Straight talk from veteran tight end Hunter Henry, who had some struggles with tough blocking assignments Thursday, on the state of the offense.

“Same story every week. It’s not good enough across the board. I wasn’t good enough. We all weren’t good enough,” he said. “Not sustaining drives. Not getting first downs, possessing the ball, beating ourselves, not blocking the right guy, not communicating well. Penalties, turnovers early on in the season -- it’s not been good. We should be playing better. We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror and decide what we want to do.”

6. Jones a bright spot: Rookie defensive back Marcus Jones’ 48-yard catch-and-run touchdown was one of the team’s few silver linings Thursday night, as he became the first Patriots player to catch a touchdown on his first career reception since Aaron Dobson did so on Sept. 12, 2013. It was the longest first offensive play by a Patriot since receiver Stephen Starring caught a 73-yard touchdown from quarterback Steve Grogan on Sept. 4, 1983. Jones credited Mac Jones for his pre-snap read to dial up the play, saying, “It was one of those situations where you have to be ready.”

7. Folk’s leg: As poorly as the Patriots managed their timeouts at the end of the second quarter Thursday, not to be overlooked is that veteran kicker Nick Folk came up short on a 48-yard field-goal attempt. Not many kickers fail to have the distance from 48 in today’s NFL. After Folk didn’t reach the end zone on six of seven kickoffs the week prior in an indoor venue -- and the team had Tristan Vizcaino, who was elevated from the practice squad, handle kickoffs Thursday in his place -- it wouldn’t be surprising to learn he’s working through something physically.

8. Raising Arizona: Maybe a return to Arizona next week helps Folk -- a University of Arizona alum -- return to his prior form. The Patriots plan to stay in Arizona all week following next Monday’s game against the Cardinals, and then will travel to Las Vegas from there. That avoids two long flights and is consistent with what the team has done in prior years. On a related note: Former Patriots assistant Jedd Fisch, in his second year as Wildcats head coach, just agreed to a four-year contract extension

9. Light-Wendell reunion: Former Patriots offensive tackle Matt Light (2001-2011) attended Thursday’s game, catching up with former teammate/Bills assistant offensive line coach Ryan Wendell (2008-15) on the field before kickoff. One big-picture thought from Light that resonated: He believes the quality of play in the NFL has declined significantly since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement that placed stricter limits on practice time.

10. Did you know? The Patriots have made seven straight red-zone trips without a touchdown, which is tied for their longest streak under Bill Belichick (2000-present).