There is a saying in the NFL that you need to learn how not to lose before being able to learn how to win. That is a concept the New England Patriots have yet to fully master.
From that perspective, their 33-26 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday night was a major failure. Time and again the team shot itself in the foot in the worst possible moments to either hurt itself or to directly help the opponent.
It was, in a way, un-Patriot-like.
For years New England feasted on opponents making the stupid errors to cost themselves. The Patriots, on the other hand, were a precision machine that could be counted on to not hurt themselves in an unnecessary fashion.
At least on Thursday night, however, those roles were reversed. The Vikings took full advantage of New England’s several miscues, something Bill Belichick made sure to point out during his postgame press conference.
“Disappointing to come up a little bit short, but we just had too many mistakes they took advantage of,” the Patriots’ head coach said. “That really is the difference in a game.”
No one unit was immune to those miscues. It truly was an all-around display of insufficient play, from start to finish.
The offense, which looked as good as it had all season for the first three quarters, had several little or small instances of simply being too sloppy. There was Hunter Henry not going out of bounds on a catch-and-run right before the half, for example. Or Mac Jones taking a sack instead of throwing the ball away later on that series. Both plays costed the team a chance to go for a touchdown rather than a field goal.
In general, the unit once again was bad in the red area. Despite going up against the worst red zone defense in the NFL, the Patriots came away with zero touchdowns on three red zone trips. One or two, or even three scores in that part of the field could have made a massive difference.
The same was true for making stops on defense. One of the best units in the league was unable to get off the field in critical situations, allowing Minnesota to go 8-for-15 on third down.
Additionally, the unit had three 15-yard penalties that moved the chains: Jonathan Jones was flagged twice for grabbing the opponent’s facemask, while fellow cornerback Myles Bryant was penalized for unnecessary roughness.
“We just have to do a better job,” said safety Devin McCourty during his own post-game press conference. “Penalties hurt us today on drives, making drives longer without them having to make a play. Just giving them free yards, so we have to do a better job at that.”
But even when the unit seemed to make the crucial stop on third down, it still was not enough. Special teams, after all, played its part in the comedy of errors as well.
Giving up a 97-yard kickoff return touchdown and an uneven punting performance were one thing, running into the kicker on 4th-and-3 to keep the drive alive on a 5-yard penalty is something completely different. Rookie Pierre Strong Jr. came in too hot, hit Minnesota’s kicker and that is all she wrote.
Three plays later, the Vikings were up 33-26. New England never recovered.
The worst part from a Patriots perspective is that they very well could have still won the game. But, as Belichick pointed out, those miscues started adding up.
“Could point to a lot of things, and any of them would have made a difference,” he told reporters after the game. “But collectively we’ve just got to do a better job here and just perform a little bit better than we did tonight.”
With a big division game coming up next Thursday against the Buffalo Bills, performing better will be crucial. The Patriots, after all, are not a good enough team right now to overcome avoidable mistakes like the ones they made versus the Vikings.