Two weeks ago, we babbled our faces off about the hostile crowd that awaited the Patriots when they got to Buffalo. For the first time, Mac Jones was going to be in the belly of the beast on the road. And while it may get loud in the SEC, highly-motivated, agitated and energized professional football players are a few degrees more daunting than LSU.
The adversity never materialized in Buffalo. In the end, the impact of the Bills’ table-smashing devotees was overshadowed by the wind, sleet and snow. The Bills were overwhelmed by the physicality of the Patriots. The Patriots threw the first punch. And the next several. Buffalo’s response was to check their mouth for blood and think to itself, “I bet they can’t do it again.” And the Patriots did.
Saturday night in Indy, Jones and the 2021 Patriots got their baptism by fire. The 20-0 hole they found themselves in wasn’t about coaching or playcalling. It wasn’t about a lack of talent or arm strength or toughness. The Colts did to the Patriots what the Patriots did to the Bills.
The Patriots didn’t know it was gonna be that kind of party when they stepped on the field. It was like they were late and spent the first 40 minutes of the game trying to pull up their pants while running for the door.
Their first offensive drive was waylaid by two lack-of-focus penalties: Shaq Mason wandered downfield on a screen then Jones and the offense took a delay of game. Then left tackle Isaiah Wynn matadored DeForest Buckner for a 15-yard sack.
The second drive featured a third-and-9 drop by Jakobi Meyers on a throw that would have set up points. And on the next play, Jakob Johnson missed an assignment that led to a blocked punt touchdown. Tough plays for otherwise dependable players whose names begin with “Jakob.”
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Nose bloodied, the Patriots offense responded with a three-and-out. Indy went 58 yards in eight plays and added a field goal. It was 17-0. After starting the game with three throws, Indy had run it on 12 straight plays and 19 of their next 20. It was a pretty clear case of giving the Patriots a taste of their own medicine. And they couldn’t push the spoon away.
With the chance to make it 17-7 before halftime, Jonnu Smith took a false start on second-and-1 from the Indy 13 right after the two-minute warning. On the next play, Jones either underestimated or plain didn’t see one of the NFL’s best linebackers, Darius Leonard, lurking and threw his first red zone pick of the season.
To that point, the Patriots had given away -- conservatively -- 13 points if you presume field goals instead of the Meyers drop and the Jones pick.
Josh McDaniels aptly summed up the first half when he watched Jones take that first quarter delay of game. “What are we fudge king doing?!?!?!!?” he bellowed.
My best guess as to what an unfiltered Bill Belichick would have said at the podium?
“We gave them the game. Credit to them for showing up with the appropriate level of focus and energy but we handed it to them and they happily grabbed it."
He probably wouldn’t have sounded that far different from how Sean McDermott did two weeks ago in Buffalo.
Belichick’s most telling answer in his postgame came when asked about the game’s key play, the blocked punt.
“We didn’t block the guy,” he said.
It wasn’t them. It was us.
From Hunter Henry trying to explain the crowd’s impact: “We came out way too slow, you know, turned the ball over then get a punt blocked and then just stall(ed) offensively. I mean, we just never got anything going, so it’s easy for their fans, to I mean, to really get into it. I mean, they did a good job of that.”
To Jones’ wandering answer about preparation: “I just think, starting with me, the energy was just kind of low. Maybe like feeling a little sorry for ourselves, cuz, coming off the bye and stuff, not to get into details, but we just didn’t practice well. And that just reflects how we played.”
To Matthew Slater’s disappointed dad tone: "It's frustrating. There's no excuse for it, to play like that. Come out flat. Uncharacteristic penalties. Basic stuff we were getting beat on fundamentally, not being sound. ... I hope that's not us. I don't believe that's us."
The consensus was that the 2021 New England Patriots weren’t ready to play at the same level as the Indianapolis Colts in Week 15 of the season. Personally, I hate “They wanted it more,” as an explainer. But it applies.
Is that uncharacteristic for this Patriots team? Not entirely. Even though this was the first time they lost in two months going back to the Cowboys game, there have been other flat starts mixed in. The Patriots got away with them against Houston and Carolina. This time, the hole was too deep and the competition was too stiff.
Patriots-Colts takeaways: Run defense a real concern for Pats after loss
The No. 1 lesson to me had to do with Jones.
There was curiosity about how he’d handle the baked-in adversity of a road game in a loud stadium against a good team. That he personally added to the adversity with two picks and a discomfiting air of befuddlement? The opposite of what you want to see.
But he didn’t wind up a quivering mess. And he (and the rest of the offense) finally got around to making good use of all the stops the defense made.
The Colts aren’t "better" than the Patriots. They are just like the Patriots. They are, largely, just as good. The same’s probably true of the Bills, Chiefs, Titans, etc. all through the league.
The cheap, cliché, eye-rolling reason the Patriots lost on Saturday is that they just weren’t into it like the Colts were.
“We didn’t play our best football today,” said McCourty. “We played against a good football team, a team that’s hungry, it’s that time of year. But our season is not over. We have to get ready to go with a division game, a team we just beat a couple weeks ago, that’ll be ready to go because they’re in a must-win situation. ... If we don’t handle it well, it’ll be our season."