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The Lane Breakdown: 10 things we learned from the Patriots’ loss to the Bengals

Related: Instant analysis from Patriots’ 22-18 loss to Bengals

The New England Patriots lost another heartbreaking game on Saturday. They very much looked like the worst team ever in the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals, trailing 22-0 by intermission. They made a real push in the second half, however, and almost pulled out an improbable victory only to have another bad play end the game.

Let’s get into our takeaways from the 22-18 loss on Christmas Eve.

Marcus Jones is a superstar in the making: We saw some of the limitations that Marcus Jones has when he was covering Tee Higgins and Ja’Mar Chase: he’s never going to be a big guy. What he lacks in size, he makes up for in athleticism (and he packs quite a punch when he’s tackling) and a rare playmaking ability.

Take his 69-yard pick-six in the third quarter. Obviously, it was an easy interception, but it was the return that shows why he is so special. The move on the sideline to avoid Joe Burrow and Samaje Perine, and also not lose any speed doing it, was special, and that type of ability is hard to teach. He is the first player in 45 years to have a receiving touchdown, return touchdown, and defensive touchdown in the same season.

Jones is exactly the type of playmaker that gives teams an advantage in the NFL, and he’s going to be a lot of fun to watch for years to come.

That Kendrick Bourne guy is pretty good: It took until the third quarter of Week 16, but the Patriots finally gave Kendrick Bourne some real opportunities and drew some plays up for him. He responded with his first 100-yard receiving game — including an outrageous catch down the sideline and a touchdown — as well as a 29-yard run.

Mac Jones is very clearly comfortable throwing the ball to Bourne and he needs to be getting consistent playing time. They need to get the ball in his hands more often, both down the stretch and in 2023.

The Patriots are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: The Patriots looked like a JV team playing a varsity team in the first half, but they turned things around in the second half. The Bengals completely dominated the first half, running almost 50 plays and shutting the Patriots out. Then, they turned the tables on them and shut Cincinnati out in the second half, scoring 18 unanswered points.

It wasn’t enough to win the game, but the Patriots were able to take control in the second half and at least make it interesting.

Mental mistakes doom the Patriots again: The Patriots forced a fumble and took over control of the ball on the Cincinnati side of the field. They were down four and had plenty of time on the clock to get the ball into the end zone. They got it all the way to 1st-and-goal inside the 10-yard line, before Rhamondre Stevenson, who never really got going on Saturday, fumbled the game away to effectively end the game.

That wasn’t the only mistake at that point in the game, though. Mac Jones got a 15-yard penalty, which gave the Bengals some breathing room away from the end zone and flipped the field a bit as well. Then, after the defense forced a three-and-out, Marcus Jones was fielding a punt that had far out-kicked its coverage. It looked like Jones would be able to get an easy 15-20 yards on the return, if not more, and he simply dropped the kick. It rolled out of bounds and the Patriots had to start back at their 24-yard line

If Mac Jones doesn’t commit the penalty, and if Marcus Jones fields the punt cleanly, they might have started their final series closer to midfield with a real chance to getting into scoring range with 41 ticks left on the clock. Those were far from the only mistakes in the game, but they perfectly incapsulate how the little things are killing New England this year.

Coaching is a real problem: The Patriots’ coaching, and not just on offense, was pretty tough, especially in the first half. The offensive play-calling has been an issue for a good chunk of the season, and that continued on Saturday. They were predictable and boring, and the execution wasn’t there either.

Then there was the defense. They were giving the Bengals a 10-yard cushion on seemingly every play, and allowing them to run underneath uncovered, or to attack them at the stem of the routes. They did change some of those things in the second half, but it’s been the same story all year long.

Perhaps the most telling sequence, however, was when New England took over possession with eight seconds left in the first half and down 22-0. They threw the ball short to Jakobi Meyers and called a quick timeout. Then, after the timeout, they took a knee and let the half run out. It just seems like they don’t have a plan about what is going on out on the field, and that sequence was the most indicative we’ve seen all year.

Matthew Judon is not disappearing down the stretch this year: Matthew Judon had an issue last year where he disappeared at the end of the regular season and into the playoffs. He has not had that issue this year.

He had a sack again, but perhaps his biggest play of the game was stripping the ball from Ja’Marr Chase in the fourth quarter. He gave the Patriots the ball back with a chance to take the lead, and that’s all you can ask from your star players. A little more consistency out of him would have been nice, as there were some plays where he lost contain and also took what I thought was a bad penalty, but he was an impact player again for the Patriots on Saturday.

Offense starts when the defense scores: For the second week in a row the offense couldn’t get moving until the defense scored a touchdown. Last week it was Kyle Dugger with a pick-six, and this week it was Marcus Jones. It’s almost as though the team is waiting for a spark, and they’ve been getting it from the defense.

If the offense had been able to do anything in the first half, this might have been a win for the Patriots. The unit needs to figure out a way to get going before the defense scores for them. The Patriots tied the record for non-offensive touchdowns this season, but that’s not enough to win consistently without an offense that can actually score.

Nick Folk’s struggles continue: Nick Folk has struggled in the second half of this year. He hit a long field goal last week, but he had a very rough day on Saturday. Now, there were clearly wind issues down the closed side of the field, as Evan McPherson missed a few kicks down that end as well, but the final extra point attempt was down the open end, and it barely made it through the end zone. Folk has been one of the most reliable players on the Patriots the last few years, but it might be time for him to hang it up.

New England allows the officiating to make a major impact: Last week, the Patriots had a very questionable call against them when Keelan Cole looked like he was clearly out of bounds, but was given a touchdown anyway. That play didn’t lose the game for the Patriots, but it certainly didn’t help. This week was no different.

Rhamondre Stevenson appeared to have been stopped and driven backwards when the ball was stripped from his hands. He should have held onto the ball anyway but you’d like those calls to go your way sometimes. Twice in the last two weeks they haven’t.

Of course, the main issue is that the Patriots made mistakes that put them in this position to begin with: they allow questionable calls like these to derail their games, by simply not playing 60 minutes of good football.

Enjoy the holiday season, even with the Patriots likely out of the playoffs: Being a fan of a team sometimes means that you live and die by the result of its games. Hopefully, you don’t let the result on Saturday ruin your holiday.

The Patriots have a long way to go to improve, and missing the playoffs and getting a better draft pick might not be the worst thing for them this year. I’d love to see them use more of the offense that they employed in the second half on Saturday, and then there will hopefully be some growth from Mac Jones and the rest of the unit.

Obviously, it’s frustrating to see a season end in disappointment but you just have to hope that there are better days on the horizon if they can put together another draft like the last two years.

Happy Holidays to everyone out there. I hope that you are able to spend some quality time with your loved ones, and come away happy, refreshed, and ready for 2023.