At his postgame press conference, Bill Belichick looked and sounded like a coach who'd just been engaged in a three-hour football Whack-a-Mole marathon.
"Disappointing to come up a little bit short," Belichick said after his team lost to the Vikings, 33-26, on Thanksgiving. "But we just had too many mistakes they took advantage of, and that really is the difference in a game."
Mistakes. They were everywhere. Like rodents, popping their heads up for air, at the worst possible times.
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For the first time in a long time, however, it wasn't Belichick's offense that was the worst offender. In fact, it was the best game second-year quarterback Mac Jones has played this season. He threw for 382 yards and two touchdowns. He averaged 9.8 yards per attempt, cobbled together a 119.8 quarterback rating, and the Patriots offense averaged a season-high 7.4 yards per play. He was accurate. He made good decisions. The ball was really never put in harm's way.
But just as soon as the offense began to click, other areas of Belichick's team -- areas that had been sound for weeks -- submitted game-changing mishaps.
On special teams they allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown. Mole. Rookie special-teamer Pierre Strong ran into Minnesota's punter, extending their drive, which led to the game-winning touchdown. Mole.
Defensively, they were flagged for three 15-yard penalties. Mole. They allowed Justin Jefferson to tear them to shreds (nine catches, 139 yards, one touchdown) despite consistent double-teams. Mole. Their pass-rush was a non-factor against an offensive line that allowed seven sacks four days prior. Mole. They were flagged six times for 55 yards. Mole.
The lack of attention to detail extended to the offensive side of the ball as well, despite their numbers. They went just 3-for-10 on third down. They went 0-for-3 in the red zone. They erased end-of-half opportunities to score by not stopping the clock on two separate occasions. They got shellacked in the time-of-possession game, playing just 55 offensive snaps (second-lowest total of the season for them), and having the football for just under 24 minutes.
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It wasn't supposed to look that way. The Patriots had extra time to prepare for the Vikings since they had the good fortune of facing the Jets following their Week 10 bye. They'd just seen the Jets in Week 8. The prep for that divisional matchup didn't require the bulk of New England's week off. That was when they got started in earnest on Minnesota, which didn't have the same luxury, coming off difficult games against the Bills and Cowboys.
Yet the Patriots, facing a rookie head coach in Kevin O'Connell, still looked like the team that wasn't ready. And though there were big-picture reasons for them to be encouraged -- the offense, and Mac Jones in particular, showed explosive-play ability at long last -- the self-inflicted errors that plagued them have to be equally discouraging. And they raise questions that didn’t exist at such elevated decibels before Week 12.
Can the Patriots defense hold up against more competent quarterbacks leading potent passing attacks? Can their special-teams units hold up on a weekly basis? Can they play intelligently when they absolutely have to?
Their Thanksgiving mess lost them a winnable game. Period. And they now head into a difficult stretch run that could end with them looking back at the holiday and wondering what might've been had they just been able to play a little bit cleaner.