Lotta talk Sunday night about fighting until the end. Plucky. Gritty. Never say die.
(Raising hand tentatively ...)
Howsa bout fighting at the beginning?
The Patriots are 7-8, losers in four of their last five meetings after their 22-18 Christmas Eve loss to the Bengals. The final score and postgame laments about coming close masked the reality. The Patriots were only in the thing because of dumb luck.
After their most inept 30 minutes of football this season put them down 22-0, 12 of the Patriots' 18 points came on highly unlikely plays. The first was Marcus Jones’ 69-yard interception return when Joe Burrow threw it directly to him. The other was the ricochet 48-yard touchdown on a third-and-29 that bounced off the hands of a gentleman named Scotty Washington and into the hands of Jakobi Meyers.
I don’t want to be a lump of human coal. There were instances of high competency. Marcus Jones’ return was sublime. Matthew Judon’s forced fumble on Ja’Marr Chase was a huge play at a critical moment. Kendrick Bourne and Mac Jones showed -- for one chilly afternoon -- the kismet we saw in 2021 when Bourne had 55 catches and 925 yards from scrimmage.
But the Patriots are now the kind of team the Bengals were, while the Bengals are in the class the Patriots called home for two decades.
Burrow was leadingly asked after the game if this was the kind of game "championship teams should be able to win if you are going to accomplish what you want to accomplish."
"Yes, you could say that. I would also say teams that want to win a Super Bowl put them away a little earlier."
No disrespect intended by Burrow, but it was there. It was there in the same way you could hear it when Patriots used to approach a win like the one Cincy secured. A "we should have won by 30 and not have been sweating out the end against a team like that" kinda vibe.
The 2022 Patriots have earned the disrespect.
Sunday’s start was inexcusable. And the end was, sadly, predictable. I don’t know the exact moment when the Patriots became a "they’ll probably f--- this up at the end" kinda team. But any argument they aren’t wouldn’t stand up to evidence submitted the past two weeks.
Against Vegas, an historically horrible play sealed the loss. This week, it was the more pedestrian late fumble by Rhamondre Stevenson. In both instances, the explanation was "trying to do too much."
I can’t second-guess Stevenson’s decision to keep his legs churning. He always does that. And his forward progress was not only stopped, he was being driven back. The issue was ball security. Maybe a case of being a little too frantic.
Why would a guy get frantic and try too hard to make a play? Because he knows opportunities are fleeting. Think the Patriots were going to score a touchdown if Stevenson hadn’t fumbled? After the circus you saw last week when the Patriots had first-and-goal at the Raiders 2? Knowing that the Patriots are by far the NFL’s worst team in the red zone and that they are 30th in the league scoring in goal-to-go situations (57.14 percent)?
I’m not saying those numbers were dancing like sugarplums in Stevenson’s head. I am saying that a propensity to melt down individually or "do too much" comes when a player doesn’t have trust or confidence in general. That lack of confidence has been hard-earned through spring, minicamp, training camp, preseason and 14 games.
The Patriots don’t know what they’re doing on offense. Submitted for evidence? They lost tight end Hunter Henry on their third offensive play when he collided with Jonnu Smith. That was not the play call. They later lost Smith when he and Bourne wound up clustered together and Mac Jones fired into the white mass of humanity which resulted in Smith getting double-whacked.
As for the defensive attaboys? Come on.
After the second play, the Patriots burned a timeout on defense, apparently because they didn’t have the right people on the field.
Two plays later, Cincinnati was in the end zone. This was the level of check-in for the team five days after the team lost in the most embarrassing way imaginable against the Las Vegas Raiders?
My friend Michael Hurley from CBS Boston noted at halftime that the Patriots ran 20 non-kneeldown plays. One went for 29 yards. One went for 11 (before halftime, barely counts). One went for 9. One for 6. Nine had gone for zero or negative yards.
After two drives, Burrow was 9 for 9 for 121 and two touchdowns. The Bengals had 142 yards of offense. The Patriots had six. The Patriots' response was another offensive three-and-out.
The Patriots weren’t ready at the beginning. They weren’t good enough at the end. Kinda like the 2022 season.
The Patriots are now 1-4 since Thanksgiving and the lone win came at Arizona when Kyler Murray tore his ACL on the Cardinals' first drive. This Patriots team has -- like the 2019, 2020 and 2021 editions -- gotten progressively worse as the season’s gone on and saved its worst football for December.
They’ve gotten a little Bengally.