The New England Patriots lost a shootout to the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday, falling 33-26 in a Thanksgiving night thriller.
Here are five quick-hitting takeaways from the loss, which dropped the Patriots to 6-5 on the season:
1. Mac Jones thrives — until late
The version of Jones who looked like the Patriots’ franchise quarterback last season? He finally returned Thursday night.
For the first three quarters, Jones played some of the best football of his NFL career to date, confidently and efficiently leading the Patriots’ offense. At the start of the fourth, he was 22-for-26 for 278 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, averaging a lofty 10.7 yards per attempt.
The touchdowns were two of the three longest the Patriots have scored this season, and both came off play-action: a 34-yarder to Nelson Agholor in the first quarter and a 37-yarder to Hunter Henry in the third. Jones had seven completions of 20 or more yards in the game and four of 30-plus.
It was no coincidence that New England’s much-maligned offensive line also showed marked improvement during this period, protecting its second-year QB far better than it had in any of the previous three games. Despite the Patriots missing two O-line starters in center David Andrews and tackle Isaiah Wynn, Jones was not hit during the first three quarters, and his only sack came when he slid down behind the line. This performance showed the type of passer Jones can be when his blocking holds up.
But the Patriots’ offense evaporated in the final 15 minutes. They went three-and-out on their first two fourth-quarter possessions, then had a promising drive snuffed out when left tackle Trent Brown whiffed on a cut block, allowing a sack that put the Patriots in a fourth-and-15 hole. They could not convert, and a desperation drive in the final seconds also went nowhere. A frustrated Jones slammed his helmet down on the turf as time expired.
Despite the late swoon, this was a huge step forward for New England’s offense, which had scored just two total touchdowns over its previous three games. Jones finished the game 28 of 39 for a career-high 382 yards with no turnovers.
But problems remain, including a glaring lack of red-zone efficiency.
Facing a Vikings defense that had been one of the NFL’s worst in the red zone through 11 weeks, the Patriots crossed Minnesota’s 20-yard line three times and failed to score a touchdown on any of those visits. They also went 3-for-10 on third down and had two clock-management errors on the final drive of the first half that robbed them of a few extra shots at the end zone.
The Patriots entered the game ranked 31st in the NFL in red-zone conversion rate. Only the Denver Broncos ranked lower.
2. Controversial calls
The Patriots were on the wrong end of two contentious officiating decisions. First, officials missed a clear hold on safety Kyle Dugger during a 97-yard kick-return touchdown by Kene Nwangwu. The special teams score tied the game at 23-23 early in the third quarter.
One drive later, Jones appeared to connect with Henry for the tight end’s second touchdown of the night. But officials reversed their initial ruling after a video review, concluding that Henry did not complete the catch as he went to the ground.
The Patriots eventually settled for a Nick Folk field goal, so those two plays cost them a total of 11 points.
A facemask against Mac Jones on a failed third-down conversion in the fourth quarter also went uncalled.
3. DeVante Parker steps up with Jakobi Meyers ailing
Meyers suffered a shoulder injury while making a diving catch on the Patriots’ first offensive snap. He later returned, but New England had to play much of the game without its undisputed No. 1 receiver. Meyers entered Thursday with 44 catches on the season. No other Patriots wideout had more than 17.
A lack of secondary receiving production has hindered the Patriots’ offense this season, but Parker elevated his game Thursday night, catching all four of his targets for 80 yards. All four went for first downs, including a 40-yard bomb from Jones midway through the third quarter.
Agholor also chipped in with six catches for 65 yards and a touchdown, his first since Week 2, but could not haul in a late deep ball from Jones on fourth-and-15. Kendrick Bourne was held to three catches for 36 yards, and rookie Tyquan Thornton was not targeted.
Meyers’ health will be worth monitoring ahead of next Thursday’s massive AFC East matchup with the Buffalo Bills. He’s a vitally important piece of New England’s offense.
Running back Damien Harris also left the game with a thigh injury and did not return. Losing him would leave the Patriots with no proven backup for Rhamondre Stevenson. Stevenson rushed seven times for 36 yards and caught nine passes on 10 targets for 76 yards in the loss.
4. Costly penalties
A lack of discipline burned the Patriots in this game. They committed six penalties for 55 yards, including a pair of 15-yard facemasks on Jonathan Jones and a neutral zone infraction on Matthew Judon that turned a third-and-12 into a more manageable third-and-7.
The most costly, though, was a running into the kicker flag on running back Pierre Strong. The rookie’s miscue extended a late Vikings drive, and Kirk Cousins found Adam Thielen for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown three plays later.
Cousins, who traditionally has struggled in primetime games, went 30-for-37 for 299 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.
5. Can’t stop Justin Jefferson
The Patriots threw everything at the Vikings’ No. 1 wideout, shadowing him with top cornerback Jonathan Jones for much of the game and frequently double-covering him. It didn’t matter.
Jefferson — the first of several elite wideouts the Patriots will face during their arduous second-half schedule — finished with nine receptions on 11 targets for 139 yards and a touchdown. The biggest of those was a 37-yard contested catch between Jones and safety Devin McCourty that set up Thielen’s game-winning score.
The road gets no easier for New England’s secondary, which faces the likes of Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis, DeAndre Hopkins, Davante Adams, Ja’Marr Chase, Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle in the coming weeks.
The Patriots bottled up Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, holding the Pro Bowler to 42 yards on 22 carries, but couldn’t do much to fluster Cousins despite facing a Minnesota O-line that was without injured left tackle Christian Darrisaw. Josh Uche notched New England’s lone sack on the first play of the fourth quarter.