Seven Takeaways From Patriots’ Failed Comeback Bid Vs. Bengals

The Patriots' rally ended with a lost fumble in the final minute


Dec 24, 2022

FOXBORO, Mass. — An uncharacteristically sparse crowd populated Gillette Stadium on Christmas Eve. Open seats were plentiful, especially in the stadium’s upper deck, with tickets available for as low as $20 shortly before kickoff.

The Patriots’ present to those fans dedicated enough to show up Saturday in sub-freezing temperatures: a metaphorical lump of coal.

New England rallied for 18 unanswered points after halftime but fell to the defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals 22-18, all but extinguishing their remaining playoff hopes.

It was the Bengals’ 11th win in their last 13 games. The Patriots have lost four of their last five.

Here are seven at-the-whistle takeaways from the loss, which dropped New England to 7-8 on the season:

1. Spirited finish
Trailing 22-12 with 6:02 remaining and facing a third-and-29, Mac Jones heaved a pass into the end zone from near midfield. His target: backup tight end Scotty Washington, who only was playing because Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith both were sidelined with injuries.

Washington couldn’t haul in Jones’ deep ball — but he did deflect it straight to a trailing Jakobi Meyers who caught it for an unlikely 48-yard touchdown. It was a measure of redemption for Meyers, whose boneheaded backward pass loss last week’s game for the Patriots.

Nick Folk missed the ensuing extra point — his second shank of the game — to keep New England’s deficit at four.

Five plays later, Pro Bowl edge rusher Matthew Judon dropped into coverage, converged on star receiver Ja’Marr Chase and punched the ball out. Cornerback Marcus Jones recovered, giving the Patriots possession at Cincinnati’s 43-yard line with 3:12 to play.

The Patriots drove to the Bengals’ 5-yard line, but Rhamondre Stevenson fumbled on an inside handoff with 65 seconds remaining, and Cincinnati recovered.

The Patriots’ defense — which shut out Cincinnati’s high-powered offense in the second half — forced a three-and-out to give the offense one final possession, but that went nowhere, allowing the Bengals to close out the game with a kneeldown.

2. This offense needs new leadership
Until their fourth-quarter surge, the Patriots again were an unmitigated mess offensively, continuing a trend that’s persisted throughout Matt Patricia’s first season as play-caller.

The play-calling was poor. The route spacing was ugly. There was no rhythm, no flow. While the Bengals reached Patriots territory on each of their first seven possessions (more on that below), New England didn’t run a play on Cincinnati’s side of the 50 until the opening play of the fourth quarter.

Six of the Patriots’ first drives ended in a punt. On the one that didn’t, the Patriots took over possession with 14 seconds remaining in the first half, completed a pass to Meyers, called a timeout, then took a knee to run out the clock — a nonsensical sequence that exemplified how disjointed this offense has looked in the vast majority of their games this season.

NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport reported Saturday morning that Bill O’Brien is a “strong option” to replace Patricia next season. The Patriots should get him on a plane ASAP.

3. Where has Kendrick Bourne been all season?
The energetic wideout was the Patriots’ top offensive weapon Saturday, sparking renewed questions about his lack of usage this season.

Despite not being part of New England’s initial receiver rotation, Bourne caught six passes for a team-high 100 yards. Those included three third-down conversions, one touchdown and an acrobatic 28-yard reception down the right sideline that initially was ruled incomplete before being reversed upon video review.

Bourne also had a 29-yard carry off a jet sweep on his first offensive snap, which didn’t come until late in the second quarter. He and Meyers accounted for 183 of Jones’ 240 passing yards in the loss.

Tyquan Thornton continued his quiet rookie season with one catch for 8 yards and a bad drop on a well-placed deep ball, and Nelson Agholor was not targeted. DeVante Parker missed his second straight game with a concussion.

4. The Patriots’ cornerbacks couldn’t measure up
Playing without the injured Jalen Mills and Jack Jones for the second straight game, New England’s corners could not contain Cincinnati’s collection of talented — and much taller — wide receivers.

Tee Higgins (6-foot-4) had eight catches for 128 yards and a touchdown. Reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Ja’Marr Chase (6 feet) finished with eight catches for 79 yards. Slot receiver Tyler Boyd was largely held in check (3-21-0), but 6-foot-2 fourth receiver Trenton Irwin scored two touchdowns and nearly had a third.

The Patriots’ top three corners were 5-foot-10 Jonathan Jones, 5-foot-8 Marcus Jones and 5-foot-9 Myles Bryant. Only No. 4 corner Shaun Wade has above-average height or length (6-1), but he’d played just 17 defensive snaps all season entering Saturday. Wade was in coverage on Irwin’s second score.

Joe Burrow had 28 completions for 284 yards and three touchdowns in the first half alone as Cincinnati built a 22-0 halftime lead. And, really, the Patriots should have trailed by more, as the Bengals missed two extra points and Burrow threw a red-zone interception by Devin McCourty. Burrow finished 40-of-52 for 375 yards and three touchdowns with two picks.

5. Marcus Jones does it again
The Patriots finally got on the scoreboard with less than four minutes remaining in the third quarter. The touchdown-scorer: Marcus Jones, who picked off an errant Burrow pass on third-and-11 and returned it 69 yards to the house.

Jones showed superb speed and balance on his pick-six, tightroping the Patriots’ sideline and keeping his footing when Burrow and Samaje Perine dove at his ankles around the 30-yard line.

The third-round rookie had some issues in coverage against Higgins and Chase, but his emergence as a true three-phase weapon this season has been remarkable to watch. Jones now has a punt-return touchdown (against the Jets in Week 11), a receiving touchdown (against the Bills in Week 13) and a pick-six in his first NFL campaign.

Jones was briefly shaken up on his late fumble recovery but returned to play offensive snaps — and pick up 15 yards on a wide receiver sweep — on the ensuing offensive possession.

6. Both tight ends hurt
Hunter Henry suffered a knee injury while colliding with fellow tight end Jonnu Smith on the Patriots’ opening possession. He exited toward the locker room and did not return.

The Patriots used 12 personnel (1RB, 2TE) on all three plays on their first drive, but Henry’s absence prompted them to shelve that package. They wound up spending most of the game in 11 personnel (three wide receivers), occasionally inserting backup tackle Yodny Cajuste as a jumbo tight end.

Elevated practice squadder Washington didn’t play until the fourth quarter, after Smith was pulled from the game for a head injury evaluation. Smith did not return, and Washington, an ex-Bengal who was making his NFL debut, played the rest of the game.

7. The Patriots aren’t officially dead, but they might as well be
New England technically remains alive in the AFC playoff race at 7-8, but it’ll need to upset the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills and receive a great deal of help from the Dolphins and/or Los Angeles Chargers over the final two weeks to have any chance of earning a wild-card spot.

It is possible? Theoretically. But the Patriots now are 0-5 this season against teams that entered the weekend in playoff position and already have two-touchdown losses to both Miami and Buffalo on their record.

Barring a late-season miracle, team owner Robert Kraft’s call for a return to postseason success will not be answered this year. The Patriots look poised to miss the playoffs for the second time in three seasons and just the third time since 2001. They have not won a playoff game since Super Bowl LIII.

Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images
New England Patriots wide receiver Jakobi Meyers
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