What a game.
In what was by far their best game of the season, the Patriots faced off against the Minnesota Vikings in a Thursday night Thanksgiving showdown. New England just about kept up with a high-powered (and top-ranked) Minnesota offense for the whole game, trading blows back and forth deep into the fourth quarter.
Unfortunately, multiple misfortunes throughout the game lost the Patriots their offensive momentum. Between unlucky penalty calls (or the lack of them), timely mistakes, and just good play by the opposition, they faltered down the stretch.
Even with multiple drives at the end, they could not keep even with the Vikings, losing the game 33-26.
Here are four big takeaways from the game.
Mac Jones and the offense looked great
If one were to pass around potential blame for this hard-fought loss, none of it should go to quarterback Mac Jones. Jones had by far his best game of the season, completing 28-of-39 passes for 382 yards and two touchdowns for a 119.8 passer rating.
In a season where he has struggled with confident throws and timing with his receivers, Jones looked like a seasoned quarterback all game long, reading the Vikings’ defense with relative ease. Jones was finding holes in Minnesota’s zone defense and making accurate and on-time throws to his receivers.
And these throws were not just little dink and dunk passes either.
Jones’s success was, in part, due to the play of New England’s offensive line. The group had just been flat-out bad during the first part of the season and were without starting center David Andrews and right tackle Isaiah Wynn for the game.
However, even with these absences, the offensive line put together a great performance. While they did allow three sacks, they were the only three hits that Jones sustained throughout the game.
While the offensive line’s performance was not perfect, it was far improved from how they had played in previous weeks.
The defense was just alright
This was one of the first games this year where New England’s offense outplayed their defense. While the defense was not necessarily bad, they played well below the level they had been performing at in previous games.
The Patriots’ defensive game plan was essentially to use cornerback Jonathan Jones to cover Vikings star receiver Justin Jefferson and to put defensive back Kyle Duggar on Vikings tight end TJ Hockenson, with both players getting some safety or linebacker help on certain plays. The results of this strategy were, well, mixed.
While Jon Jones did record an interception in the game and nearly had another, he was also beaten on routes by Jefferson basically the whole game. Jefferson ended up totaling 139 receiving yards on nine receptions and scored a touchdown, with one of those catches being this fantastic catch in traffic.
Hockenson also had a good game, tallying 43 yards on five catches while adding a touchdown of his own.
While the Patriots defense was able to limit the number of explosive plays from the Vikings’ offense, their “bend but don’t break” mentality ultimately could not withstand Minnesota’s offensive consistency, with one culprit being New England’s inability to generate pressure.
Against a young offensive line, the Patriots only managed to register one sack on four QB hits throughout the contest. While the sack did come by defensive end Josh Uche on a big play early in the fourth quarter, it ultimately did not do enough to hinder Minnesota’s offensive confidence.
A positive for the defense on the night was for sure its run-stopping ability. Vikings star running back Dalvin Cook was limited to just 42 yards on 22 carries, with Patriots defenders shooting through opened holes in Minnesota’s offensive line all night long. However, while this run-stopping ability made the Vikings’ offense one-dimensional, it ultimately did not do much to stop their overall offensive attack.
One standout star of the night for New England’s defense was easily linebacker Raekwon McMillan. While McMillan did only register three total tackles, two of them went for a loss, including this tackle on a screen pass that he read from about 10 yards away.
McMillan has been a budding candidate to become a defensive centerpiece for the Patriots for a few years now. The number 50 on his back shows the faith that the coaching staff has in him becoming a significant part of the team, and that faith is quickly becoming realized.
Play Action - keep it going
Even with New England’s offensive struggles this year, they have been able to thrive on one type of play call: play-action passes.
Through Week 12, Mac Jones had thrown for 256 yards on 29 play-action pass attempts going into the season. Backup Bailey Zappe, who played in four games while Jones was injured, has an even better statline of 363 yards on 20 play-action pass attempts.
This success had led some to wonder in recent weeks why the Patriots do not use play-action play calls more often to generate offensive momentum, as noted by The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin.
On Thursday, the team seemed to hear the plea for more play action, and they delivered. This touchdown pass to tight end Hunter Henry was one of a number of play-action plays that the team called throughout the contest that fooled Minnesota’s defense.
The Patriots have had a tremendous amount of success on play-action pass calls all season, and this game is indicative of just how powerful their offense can be while faking the run.
Special Teams is a nightmare
A week after New England’s special teams won the game against the New York Jets, it arguably lost them the game against the Vikings.
The special teams play was awful all around on Thursday night. Punter Michael Palardy, filling in for injured starter Jake Bailey, had two horrid punts under 40 yards, with the second one being a 29-yard shank late in the fourth quarter at a time when the Patriots desperately needed some positive momentum.
A penalty on Pierre Strong Jr. for running into the punter gave the Vikings a first down early in the fourth quarter, a first down which they used to later convert into the go-ahead touchdown. While Minnesota punter Ryan Wright did sell the hit to the referee, Strong ultimately should not have been in that situation to being with, and got an earful from head coach Bill Belichick on the sideline because of it.
New England’s kickoff unit was not much better. Early in the third quarter, the Patriots allowed a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that tied the game at 23. While a replay showed multiple missed potential holding penalties against Minnesota that would have negated the return, the Patriots also had a complete coverage breakdown, as veteran special teamer Matt Slater discussed after the game with ESPN’s Mike Reiss.
Special teams have historically been a phase of the game that the Patriots pride themselves in. However, save for Marcus Jones’ punt return touchdown last weekend, special teams has been a significant area of weakness for the team this season. The poor play of special teams heavily contributed to Thursday’s loss to the Vikings, and unless they fix it up soon, it may contribute to more defeats.