MINNEAPOLIS — Before he was even off the field, before Thursday’s 33-26 Patriots loss was complete, New England quarterback Mac Jones removed his helmet about 15 yards before reaching the sideline, frustrated that arguably the best game of his young pro career had come to this. The Vikings were celebrating on their home field after clinching another one-score victory. Jones took a seat on the bench and hung his head, alone.
He knew how avoidable this all was. He knew the Patriots had wasted one of their best offensive outputs of the season, that this loss was the result of one too many mistakes. For two-plus decades amid his uber-successful reign as Patriots coach, Bill Belichick has stressed the importance of preventing the kinds of slip-ups that plagued the team on Thanksgiving night. But this team couldn’t get out of its own way Thursday — even when so much else seemed to go right.
The Patriots took a silly running-into-the-punter penalty — one of their six penalties for 55 yards — prolonging a Vikings drive that culminated three plays later with the game-winning touchdown. They wasted timeouts on defense when they were unable to smoothly make substitutions. They went 0-for-3 in the red zone and 3-of-10 on third downs. Their time management at the end of the first half was suspect as tight end Hunter Henry stayed in bounds following a catch, forcing them to burn a timeout. They allowed Minnesota to return a kickoff for a touchdown.
There were a lot of positives in this game that the Patriots can build on. But the unmistakable reality is that Belichick’s team repeatedly shot itself in the foot, costing the Pats a winnable game and dropping their record to 6-5 with a tough game looming against the Bills.
Bill Belichick Live Postgame Press Conference: https://t.co/4u2qGgIJJA
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) November 25, 2022
“I think that just a couple calls, a couple plays and it’s going the other way,” said Matthew Judon, who was unusually quiet in this one, held without a sack for only the second time this season. “It wasn’t our night tonight, but I don’t think we’re far off. I don’t think that team handled us. I think it was just a couple calls, a couple plays, a couple this and a couple that and it could’ve been a different game. But we didn’t make those plays.”
Certainly, it wasn’t just mishaps from the Patriots. There’s a lot they can blame on the officials, too, including apparent blocks in the back that went uncalled on both Kene Nwangwu’s kickoff return for a touchdown and a Minnesota punt return. The refs also neglected to throw a flag when Danielle Hunter grabbed Jones’ facemask in the fourth quarter.
But the most costly decision was the reversal of a Henry catch at the goal line that was originally ruled a touchdown. After a lengthy review, the crew determined that the ball hit the ground, and the Patriots settled for a field goal.
“He was going to the ground, the ball ended up touching the ground and then he lost control of the ball in his hands,” NFL Senior VP of Officiating Walt Anderson told a pool reporter afterward.
Pool report with VP of Officiating Walt Anderson on the overturned Hunter Henry TD. pic.twitter.com/MO8X0IHwcn
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) November 25, 2022
The Patriots disagreed.
Asked if he thought he made a successful catch, Henry said, “I do. They said it hit the ground, but I believe my hand was under the ball.”
Then, though, there were the no-doubter calls, the infractions the Patriots used to be so good at avoiding. For years, it seemed opponents made silly mistakes against New England that cost them a chance to be in it at the end. On Thursday, however, the Patriots were the ones who made those mistakes.
Rookie Pierre Strong ran into Vikings punter Ryan Wright in the fourth quarter of a tie game. His penalty gave the Vikings newfound life, and from there, they turned to Kirk Cousins and playmaker Justin Jefferson.
“It was a bad play by me,” Strong said. “Just have to learn from it and grow. It’s on me.”
Given those blunders, there are two ways of looking at the result Thursday night.
On the one hand, you could see obvious strides. Mac Jones was much, much better, completing 28-of-39 passes for 382 yards and two touchdowns. The offensive line was excellent until the final two drives. Rhamondre Stevenson, who racked up 112 yards from scrimmage, remains incredible. And the defense was OK — other than getting beaten by Jefferson, and there’s little shame in that.
On the other hand, these Patriots aren’t good enough to overcome the kinds of mistakes they made Thursday night, and it’s concerning that they’re making them at all this late in the season. Their recipe for success is combining great defense and special teams with smart play and an improving offense. In Minnesota, they couldn’t hold up either end of the bargain and paid a price.
“The result wasn’t what we wanted,” Jones said, “but I think there were some good things there.”
So what now?
The Patriots are back in the national spotlight next Thursday night for a home game against the Bills. The wide receiver challenge doesn’t get much easier with Stefon Diggs coming to town. And everyone knows what happened the last time those two teams played. The Pats will probably need a 4-2 record the rest of the way to assure a playoff spot. That’s no small task with two games against the Bills still on the horizon, plus matchups against the Dolphins and Bengals.
But those are concerns for another day. For now, the Patriots are left to ponder how they let this one get away from them.
“(It’s) disappointing to come up a little bit short, but we just had too many mistakes they took advantage of, and that really is the difference in a game,” Belichick said. “(I) could point to a lot of things, and any of them would have made a difference. But collectively we’ve just got to do a better job here and just perform a little bit better than we did tonight.”
(Photo of Hunter Henry: Jeffrey Becker / USA Today)