For the better part of the past month the Patriots have been dominant defensively while at the same time stagnant offensively. On Thanksgiving night in Minnesota, that script was flipped. All things considered, the resurgence on offense created optimism that the defensive dominance previously failed to.
First and foremost, the bottom line is the Patriots lost the game and in doing so a spot in the playoffs through 12 weeks. It was a winnable game that saw New England self-destruct at times in the second half, and for all of the offensive improvements shown the group was shut out in the final quarter while trying to protect a lead.
But after watching a parade of punts over the past couple of weeks, at least Mac Jones offered a glimpse of better things to come. In the modern NFL there are only so many teams that can be beaten consistently without the virtue of scoring an offensive touchdown. The Patriots were fortunate to face three straight opponents who posed less of a threat than they did, and the defense made sure to suffocate the Jets twice as well as the Colts.
Still, the three straight wins were hard to get too excited about because most knew the offense would need to produce much more down the stretch. And while the defense wasn't at its best in Minnesota, collapsing under a host of penalties and mistakes, the offense looked like it might be capable of at least competing after weeks of inactivity.
Jones turned in his best performance against a formidable foe since last November when he lit up the Cleveland Browns in Foxborough. Jones threw for three touchdowns in that win while compiling a 142.1 passer rating. He made standout throws downfield to Kendrick Bourne and Hunter Henry, at times into tight windows, in what was probably the rookie's best performance.
It's been a while, but Jones looked more comfortable in Minnesota than he has in weeks. He took shots downfield to Nelson Agholor and DeVante Parker, and once the Vikings adjusted, he took the underneath stuff while showing poise in the pocket throughout the game.
There were some missteps along the way as well. He failed to manage the clock well toward the end of the first half and took a sack instead of throwing the ball away, and in the fourth quarter, he failed to produce any points, first in a tie game and then while trailing by a touchdown.
But given the lack of production this season, it was a positive step for the entire offense. The pass protection, which allowed Jones to be sacked 16 times in the previous three games, was much better in Minnesota. The Vikings finished with three sacks, but Jones consistently had much more time to throw and looked comfortable in the pocket.
It was the kind of performance that restored some hope for his future, as well as some hope for the Patriots prospects headed toward the home stretch. With Buffalo (twice), Arizona, Las Vegas, Cincinnati and Miami still on the schedule, it's unrealistic to expect the defense to continue to carry the load, as we saw in Minnesota. Points will be needed in most if not all of those games, and at least we saw signs that Jones was capable of putting some on the board.
It wasn't perfect, and no one gets points for losses, but given the alternative of the previous month, the offense may be ready to carry its share of the load.
Unfortunately, that will need to be the case because the defense continues to show its flaws against quality opponents. The Vikings are by no means high-powered offensively, but Kirk Cousins had his way with the secondary, completing 30 of 37 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns. Minnesota wound up with 33 points, a total that makes life awfully difficult for the Jones-led Patriots, who are now 0-10 when surrendering 25 or more points in a game over the past two seasons including playoffs.
So, the trick becomes simple: can the Patriots find a way to hold these opponents under 25, and if not, can Jones & Co. win a shootout? Until Thursday night that last part would have been out of the question. At least now there's hope.
That's the catch
The Hunter Henry would-be touchdown obviously created quite a stir around New England, and with good reason. The tight end certainly appeared to have full control of Jones' pass, got both feet on the ground and turned into the end zone where he broke the plane of the goal line in possession of the ball. But when Henry hit the ground, the ball came loose momentarily, causing the call to be overturned.
After years of confusion over what constitutes a catch, the league simplified things in recent seasons and seemed to settle into a more logical approach when it came to possession. Now it seems things have backslid again, and it was evident watching the league slate thanks to some Red Zone viewing over the weekend.
Countless passes were deemed incomplete when evidence seemed to the contrary. New Orleans' Chris Olave caught a deep crossing route and took two full strides before losing the ball when he hit the ground. It should have been a catch and down by contact, but officials called it incomplete. D.K. Metcalf had a diving effort go for naught in the closing seconds of regulation when the ball moved ever so slightly upon landing.
The league would be a better place if Henry's play was deemed a touchdown, and just so we're clear that we're not harboring any hometown agendas, I felt the same way back in Week 4 when Green Bay's Romeo Doubs made a diving grab, had control of the ball in the end zone, but lost possession when he hit the ground causing the pass to be ruled incomplete.
Surviving the ground, as it was once termed, should not and is no longer supposed to be required for a catch. The league will likely revisit this during the offseason once again, and it should.
Not in a giving mood
The holidays are upon us but none of the Patriots AFC rivals was willing to provide the home team with any gifts over the weekend. The Dolphins, Jets and Bengals all won on Sunday, leaving the Patriots on the outside of the playoff structure at the moment. In addition, the Chargers, Browns and Raiders also won, tightening things up in the AFC postseason race.
The lone AFC playoff team to lose was Baltimore, and even that result wasn't beneficial to the Patriots. The Ravens defeated New England earlier in the season, giving them the tiebreaker for a potential wild card. The loss dropped Baltimore into a tie with Cincinnati atop the AFC North, and at this stage the Patriots would rather see the Ravens win the division to keep the tiebreaker out of play.
Incidentally, the Ravens failed to generate a 10-point lead in the 28-27 loss to the Jaguars, snapping the team's 10-game streak of leading by double digits at some point. And give Trevor Lawrence tons of credit for engineering a tremendous last second touchdown drive, and coach Doug Pederson for rolling the dice and going for two and the win.
Chargers coach Brandon Staley, no stranger to rolling the dice himself, also passed up a chance for overtime and went for two in the closing seconds and was rewarded with a huge road win in Arizona.
Two-point conversions, going for it on fourth down and passing up sure field goals have become commonplace in today's NFL. The movement toward the analytics crowd, as these at times unconventional moves are identified, has impacted games on a weekly basis.
But there's one move that hasn't entirely swept the league – and it probably should. Earlier in the season Cleveland's Nick Chubb took some heat for scoring a late touchdown that gave the Browns a 13-point lead over the Jets with less than two minutes left. Had Chubb given himself up after getting the first down, the Browns could have run the clock out and won. But the Jets scored, recovered an onside kick, and scored again to post an improbable victory.
The Ravens had a chance to do something similar in Jacksonville, although it would have been more controversial. The Ravens trailed 20-19 and faced second-and-11 from the Jags 12 with 2:10 left. Lamar Jackson found Josh Oliver all alone in the left flat, and the tight end walked into the end zone with 2:02 left. Had Oliver taken a knee at the 1, the two-minute warning would have followed and the Jags would have been able to stop the clock just once more. Jackson could have taken three knees and watched Justin Tucker come in to end things with a chip shot field goal. Oliver can't be faulted for scoring the go-ahead touchdown. That's something the coaches would need to relay to the players beforehand, and in fairness the touchdown was of paramount importance and the Ravens needed to get to the 1 in order to have a chance to run out the clock.
Analytics is all about weighing the probabilities, and the odds of allowing the Jags to march 75 yards for a touchdown had to better than Tucker missing a 20-yard field goal. Yet, few teams employ that strategy when the game is on the line.
- Kansas City (9-2) – Not the Chiefs best effort against the Rams, but the game was never in doubt.
- Buffalo (8-3) – The Bills are finding ways to win close games in recent weeks, but the turnovers are troublesome.
- Philadelphia (10-1) – The Eagles defense is suddenly struggling, but Jalen Hurts continues to work his magic.
- Dallas (8-3) – The Cowboys bounced back nicely from the disappointing loss in Green Bay.
- Minnesota (9-2) – The Vikings were impressive Thanksgiving night against the Patriots.