ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Jonathan Jones dressed in a corner of the visitor’s locker room at New Era Field, tucked away from the media.
The New England Patriots cornerback and new Public Enemy No. 1 of the Buffalo Bills and Bills Nation wasn’t hiding, though that would have been understandable. He was just readying himself for the interrogation he knew was coming.
Bracing himself, which is something Bills quarterback Josh Allen had no chance to do.
The Bills (3-1) lost an epic defensive struggle to the Patriots (4-0) on Sunday 16-10, a game between unbeaten teams that saw them combine for 15 punts and a 7 of 31 third-down conversion rate. Offense was knocked back to the Stone Age.
But Buffalo also lost Allen, whom all hope rests on, for almost the entire fourth quarter — and probably for a lot longer — thanks to a head injury. Furthermore, the NFL lost more credibility in its effort to eliminate needless and dangerous hits from the game.
With three very poor interceptions and a 24.0 quarterback rating, Allen struggled mightily in what his second career game against coach Bill Belichick, the Jedi Master, and his No. 1-ranked defense that is playing at a level not seen in recent memory. The Patriots allowed their first touchdown of the season, so Allen can hang his hat on that.
Unfortunately, Allen’s hat wasn’t able to save him from entering concussion protocol with a game at Tennessee (2-2), which beat Atlanta 24-10, next up.
Allen’s strength has been fourth-quarter rallies, but he never got the chance to see this one through.
With 14:54 to play, he had his team on the move when he took off running over left guard. Allen was wrapped up by safety Duron Harmon, when Jones came in. The clear helmet-to-helmet contact — a violation that can lead to a player being ejected — left Allen momentarily knocked out, and unable to return.
Did Jones feel it was a dirty hit? Helmet-to-helmet?
He expressed sincere concern for Allen but pleaded the athlete’s fifth: he would need to see the tape.
“I have to watch it on film,’’ Jones said. “I had no intent to hurt him, we’re just out there running around playing football. I hope he’s OK, I’m going to check on him, he’s a good football player and I had no intention of hurting anybody.’’
Nobody does. But even though stuff happens, it’s every player’s responsibility to play under control.
Jones was flagged for unnecessary roughness, but he wasn’t ejected. But, in a galling act so typical of the Bills’ 19 years of frustration against Belichick and Tom Brady, who moved to 31-3 against Buffalo without having much of anything to do with it, the Bills were whistled for holding on the play.
That call on Dion Dawkins offset the hit on Allen. Wait. What?
“There is no room in football for a hit like that,’’ said an obviously upset Bills coach Sean McDermott. “I asked the officials for an explanation and I thought he should’ve been thrown out.’’
The officials saw it differently.
“Well, we looked at it and in this situation we didn’t feel that that contact rose to the level of an ejection,’’ senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron told pool reporter Vic Carucci of The Buffalo News. “The player (Jones) actually turns. Obviously, there is helmet contact, but we have standards for an ejection, and this did not rise to that standard; therefore, we did not eject him.’’
In other words, assault carries the same penalty as jaywalking in the NFL. Jones might have turned, but it sounds like the referees turned their heads.
Though the Bills were able to continue the drive under backup Matt Barkley all the way to the Patriots’ 3-yard line before turning it over on downs and failing to take a 17-16 lead (things promptly disintegrated under Barkley despite the Bills’ defense getting the ball back three more times) it was difficult for players to rectify their reality.
That a hit that leaves a player badly injured carries the same consequence as holding someone’s hand.
“Helmet-to-helmet is a penalty that players are fined for,’’ Dawkins said. “Personal fouls, targeting, helmet-to-helmet, unsportsmanlike conduct, those are in a whole different tax bracket than a holding call. But this league has their own flaws. The film is there…He’ll be fined, a FedEx will be in his locker and he knows it.”
Bills safety Micah Hyde, whose interception of a Brady pass in the end zone when the 42-year-old had a senior moment snuffed out a drive in the first half, presented a theory most Bills fans would share.
“I just know if that was Tom Brady, if this was the other way around, anybody on our defense wouldn’t have been able to play the rest of the game,’’ Hyde said.
Hyde is right. The six-time Super Bowl champion does tend to receive Secret Service type protection from the men in stripes. But Brady has also earned it over two decades.
All Allen showed is that he’s far from taking the mantle in the AFC East Division, where Brady has led his team to 10 consecutive titles. McDermott was forceful in his assessment of Allen, who “didn’t take what the defense was giving him.’’
That’s something Allen has done well this year, and something he did on a nine-play, 75-yard TD drive to open the second half that cut the Patriots’ lead to 13-10. Too often, though, he tested the NFL’s best secondary deep with disastrous results, likely because the underneath coverage was so strong.
Still, Allen’s three interceptions were of the hope-and-a-prayer variety that set back his progress. Give or take a pass, he was 2 of 11 on deep throws. He and Zay Jones (2 of 8 targets for 4 yards and two picks) were so far from hooking up, they would get kicked off Tinder.
And Belichick’s use of linebacker Jamie Collins’ to “spy” Allen was masterful. When Allen did get free running, he got hurt.
“We left a win out there,’’ Dawkins said. “Once again, they’re a great football team and I will never take that from him. But we have a lot of games left and this doesn’t define anything.’’
Only that the Bills are close but still so far. And that the NFL still can’t protect its players.