Minneapolis – The Patriots played some of their best offensive football of the season in a highly entertaining game in Minnesota but fell short in a 33-26 loss to the Vikings on Thanksgiving night.
We can chalk this game up to three breaks that didn't go the Patriots way when Hunter Henry's initial touchdown catch was overturned. Or when Kyle Dugger was held on the kickoff return touchdown, and it wasn't called. Or when rookie Pierre Strong ran into the punter to give Minnesota a new set of downs. It felt like it came down to those three plays.
But the bottom line is that the Patriots fell short in a higher-scoring game, continuing a trend in the Mac Jones era that doesn't look pretty on the young quarterback's resume. Amuch as the lamenting will point to officiating, the Pats didn't check the necessary boxes to capture a road victory against a playoff-caliber team. New England's offense failed to score in the red zone once again (0-3), they made two critical errors on special teams, and the defense wasn't as sharp.
With Jones at quarterback, the Pats are now 0-8 in games where the opponent scores more than 25 points. When the defense holds opponents to under 25 points, New England is 14-3.
Most teams aren't going to have a great record when the defense doesn't get stops, but the Patriots need to and have yet to win a game script where the offense drives the bus. The defense, especially against a highly skilled offense on the road, isn't going to dominate every week. At some point, Jones and the offense will need to win a game into the 30s, or it will be challenging to get where they want to go as an organization.
There were good things that the Patriots can build on offensively, which we'll dissect in the days to come in a mostly positive light. But, in the end, it wasn't enough, and that's a worrisome trend that Jones and company need to overcome to take the next step.
Here are eight takeaways as the Patriots fall to 6-5 on the season with a loss on Thanksgiving night:
1. Powerful Play of the Game presented by Enel: Kirk Cousins's Game-Winning Touchdown Pass to Adam Thielen in the Fourth Quarter
We usually reserve this section for a Patriots highlight, but this game came down to an excellent high red zone play call by Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connel that caught the Pats in their go-to coverage in this game.
With Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson torching the defense in the first half, New England continuously cut Jefferson on crossing routes as he worked across the field. Minnesota dialed up a "spear" or "scissors" play where Adam Thielen intersected with Jefferson downfield. All the help goes to Jefferson, leaving Jalen Mills alone on an island with Thielen sprinting across the field, and it's six. Great call on a tough matchup for Mills that ended up deciding the game.
2. Patriots QB Mac Jones Delivers Best Performance of the Season
Although the Patriots offense faded down the stretch, this was a huge step in the right direction for quarterback Mac Jones. Jones generated +0.15 expected points added per play with a completion percentage over expected of +10.9. With a clean pocket to operate in, his decisions and field vision was sharp, while he made several big-time throws downfield. If the Pats get this Mac, they'll win most weeks. Let's break down some of his best throws.
The game began with the Patriots engineering their first opening drive and first-quarter touchdown of the season. Yes, you read that correctly.
On the opening drive, the Patriots ran a 989 concept against a split-safety zone coverage. With the half-field safeties widening over the outside vertical routes, Agholor splits the safeties on the middle-read pattern, and Mac dots him for six.
Later in the game, Jones hit another downfield dime to DeVante Parker, where he had another clean pocket.
This time, the safety help over the top goes to the passing strength in the formation, leaving Parker one-on-one on the outside. Jones sees the rotation and hits Parker on the deep post for a huge completion.
With more time to work in the pocket, Jones was crisply making full-field progressions and was much quicker through his reads, which are positive signs. The Patriots need more sustained execution from the entire offense to make these good stretches count.
3. Kudos to Patriots Patchwork Offensive Line in Loss to Vikings
We'll have to look at the coaches film to evaluate the offensive line's play. But our view watching live was probably similar to yours at home: a job well done. Jones had plenty of clean pockets, and they were able to break a few runs. Given the circumstances with David Andrews out due to a thigh injury, this group deserves credit for the offense's success.
"If we can just continue to do that, I think a lot of things will go our way," Jones said of his offensive line's performance after the game.
4. Matt Patricia Let's Mac Cook on a Short Week, With an Old Reliable Sprinkled In
One of the things we were interested in seeing was what the Patriots offense leaned on in a short week. What do they feel best about executing? What's their base? Because you aren't going to reinvent yourself in a game plan fashion with only one practice to prepare for a Thursday night game. Well, the answer was letting Mac cook out of three-receiver sets in the gun and sprinkling in timely play-action passes from under center.
Although Jones was only under center eight times and attempted just four play-action passes on initial viewing, we did see an old reliable resurface on Thursday night. The Pats dialed up a play-action pass where the guard (Strange) pulls to mimic a power run, influencing the linebackers to step into their run fits, and then the tight end releases up the seam behind the second level. A good offensive line cures all, and there were some iffy calls late, but this passing script was a good one from Patricia.
5. Welcome Back, Hunter Henry, We Missed You
The Patriots tight end stood at his locker dejected about the final result, which was dramatically swung by an overturned touchdown late in the game that would've given the Pats the lead. Henry said he "believes" he caught the ball in question, adding that his hand was underneath the ball the whole time. The play, and the call, will be dissected over and over again. But it was great to see Henry more involved in the passing game, especially in the red zone. He needs to be a bigger part of things moving forward.
From the pool report with NFL Senior Vice President of Officiating Walt Anderson: "He was going to the ground, the ball ended up touching the ground and then he lost control of the ball in his hands."
6. Vikings WR Justin Jefferson Puts on a Show in Primetime
Some things Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson did on Thursday night were silly. Splitting bracket coverages, making contested grabs, finding soft spots in zone coverages, and drawing attention to get others open. Just a complete performance by a superb player. With Jonathan Jones primarily drawing the assignment, the Patriots did everything they could to help Jones and others on the Vikings wideout.
For example, the Patriots were calling variations of their one-cross schemes to cut off Jefferson to the inside in man coverage. After Kyle Dugger jams Jefferson, Jones passes him off as he works across the defense and falls into the middle of the field. With Cousins coming off Jefferson as he draws the extra attention, Kirk comes to the other crosser from the opposite side. But Jones is waiting for the interception.
As we outlined earlier, the one-cross calls and all the attention Jefferson drew came back to bite the Patriots late.
Plus, Jefferson split two "cone" bracket calls by running through the coverage. The idea of the bracket is to inside-out the receiver, with the corner (Jones) handling vertical routes and out-breaking patterns while the safety (McCourty) cuts off the inside. The best way to beat the brackets is to split the two defenders down the middle, which Jefferson did with an incredible burst.
Ultimately, Minnesota's other weapons working against single coverage burned the Patriots in the end. But that all started with Jefferson beating every type of coverage New England threw at him on Thursday night.
7. Patriots Need More Out of Their Pass Rush Moving Forward
New England's defensive front did a good job shutting down Minnesota's rushing attack. However, Cousins was too comfortable in the pocket and extended some plays to impact zone coverages, as the Pats four-man rushes could have been more productive this week. They got a big second-down sack by Josh Uche to force a field goal, but that was about it in this department.
8. Penalties or Not, Special Teams Let's the Patriots Down in Minnesota
Two plays swung the game in the Vikings favor that occurred in the kicking game. A kickoff return touchdown that could've been called back for a hold but wasn't. And a running into the punter call against rookie Pierre Strong that resulted in a new set of downs. As much as special teams won the game last week, it cost the Patriots on Thursday night.