In New England, Super Bowls once arrived in bunches. Now, only problems do.
Six days after suffering one of the most humiliating, inexplicable, cringeworthy losses in NFL history, the Patriots literally fumbled away what would have been an inspirational, possibly season-changing comeback victory against Cincinnati. With a chance to win a game they’d once trailed 22-0, the Patriots’ Rhamondre Stevenson fumbled on the Cincinnati 8-yard line with barely a minute left … and the days of miracle Patriots comebacks seem very far away now.
Rough, depressing week for the Patriots
The 22-18 loss brought an end to one of the most miserable weeks in recent New England history, a stretch where the entire Patriots organization looked lost and adrift in a way not seen since the 1990s. Consider all that’s happened in the past few days:
The no-time-left loss to the Raiders, where New England’s Jakobi Meyers flung a what-are-you-doing lateral right into the hands of Las Vegas’ Chandler Jones. As he ran for a game-winning touchdown, Chandler Jones threw Patriots QB Mac Jones into the turf … and that was pretty much the best thing that happened to Mac Jones this week.
Asked directly later in the week if Jones’ job is safe, Belichick declined to answer, using the old “We’re on to Cincinnati”-style evasion by focusing on, coincidentally enough, Cincinnati.
On Thursday, Patriots legend Vince Wilfork piled on, calling out Jones for his sideline histrionics. “I’m tired of it,” Wilfork said. “You’re a leader of this team, you’re a quarterback. You can’t be frustrated every single week, every single play. I don’t care if you’re getting the play call late or whatever it may be, at the end of the day you have to show some poise.”
Hours before Saturday’s kickoff, NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport reported that current Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien is a “strong option” to return to New England and take over play-calling duties. The Patriots’ entire offensive scheme is a mess, with Matt Patricia, Joe Judge and other coaches apparently unable to craft cohesive, dynamic game plans for Jones.
The only good news for New England: the story of Jerry Edmond, the Patriots fan who kept his cool as a Raiders fan berated him after Sunday’s loss. Patriots owner Robert Kraft invited Edmond to watch Saturday’s game from a slightly better vantage point: the owner’s box.
Based on Saturday’s first half, though, you couldn’t blame Edmond if he decided to become a Bengals fan on the spot. Joe Burrow lit up the New England defense, throwing for three touchdowns and looking for all the world like the Patriots were an afterthought, not a threat or even a concern.
Patriots’ offense struggled mightily in the first half
For 45 minutes of game time, New England’s offense did not display enough life to rise to the level of “anemic.” Their first seven possessions: punt, punt, punt, punt, half, punt, punt.
Jones threw for all of 34 yards in the first half, and the Patriots offense didn’t cross midfield until the final play of the third quarter.
The defense kept New England in the game, with Devin McCourty intercepting a Burrow pass with 4:19 left in the half, and Marcus Jones taking a second interception to the house with 3:51 left in the third for the Patriots’ first score.
That, at last, seemed to kick something loose in the New England machinery. On the Patriots’ next possession, Mac Jones led an 11-play, 77-yard drive that ended with a pinpoint touchdown pass to a double-covered Kendrick Bourne.
And then things turned really strange. On New England’s next drive, Mac Jones appeared to fumble right into a Cincinnati defensive touchdown, but review deemed it intentional grounding. Jones then shrugged off all the doubts and criticisms of the entire year and hurled that 48-yard touchdown, tipped into the hands of Meyers. After Nick Folk’s second missed extra point of the day, the Patriots trailed by just four points, 22-18.
The Bengals, looking utterly befuddled, almost immediately turned the ball back over to New England when Ja’Marr Chase fumbled on his own 43 with 3:12 left in the game. Mac Jones, looking a lot like another guy who used to play his position in New England, drove the Patriots all the way down to the Cincinnati 5 with just 65 seconds remaining.
Just for a moment, memories of Patriots teams past welled up in the hearts and minds of the few fans who braved 20-degree temperatures and 15-mph winds at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots came back from 28-3 in the Super Bowl, among so many other resurrections, so why wouldn’t they produce a Christmas Eve miracle?
This Patriots team, however, is not like those of years past. For the 2022 team, nothing is guaranteed, and expectations are now at field level … if that.
Throughout the decisive drive, New England’s run game carved chunks out of the Bengals, but just when victory appeared at hand, Stevenson — who had started the ill-fated lateral debacle last Sunday — ran hard into a swarm of Bengals, one of whom punched the ball loose.
One Cincinnati three-and-out and one failed desperation Jones heave later, and the Bengals had their victory… and the Patriots have only questions with no easy answers.
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.