There are several reasons why the New England Patriots are just 7-8 right now, and on the cusp of playoff elimination. One of the most prominent among them is an inability to win close games — something that was on display yet again on Saturday against the Cincinnati Bengals.
After falling behind 22-0 at the half, the Patriots rallied back in the second half. The defense registered some momentum-changing takeaways, while the offense showed some signs of life as well. As a result, New England found itself five yards from the Cincinnati end zone late in the fourth quarter with a chance to score the potential game-winning touchdown.
What happened next, however, is all-too-familiar for this year’s Patriots: they found a way to lose regardless of circumstances favoring them.
In this case, running back Rhamondre Stevenson fumbled the game away. The team’s most productive offensive skill position player this season, Stevenson was driven back on a run play and lost possession of the football. Cincinnati recovered to effectively end the game — the latest in a string of disappointing endings for the Patriots this year.
For safety Devin McCourty, it is all a question of culture.
“We fall into this thought process of this is just how the New England Patriots do, but the truth of the matter is that culture is built each year,” the team captain said after the game. “What we’ve seen in the past, those were those teams, that’s what they were built on, that’s what they were. You have to build that.
“Honestly, right now, we don’t have that. We aren’t doing that consistently enough to be behind or be in a close one and figure out three plays, two plays to decide the game.”
While just the latest example, the loss to the Bengals is not the only one that saw New England fail to deliver in key situations. Whether it was the ill-fated laterals against the Las Vegas Raiders the previous week, or a devastating running-into-the-punter penalty versus the Minnesota Vikings, the Patriots regularly seem to come up just one or two plays short.
In a way, therefore, the team’s identity is its lack of consistency: it has shown that it can hang with most opponents when playing at the highest level, but also that doing that on a consistent basis is near impossible.
Saturday’s game was a perfect encapsulation of that. The first half saw New England struggle to do anything on offense, and to slow down a high-octane Bengals attack while on defense. The resulting numbers spoke for themselves, with Cincinnati not just out-scoring the Patriots 22-0 but also out-gaining them 303 yards to 70 while running 48 plays compared to just 17.
Then, after intermission, things changed. The Patriots started to rally behind a Marcus Jones pick-six, outscoring the reigning AFC champions 18-0 and coming up just a few yards short.
“You watch this team here, that’s what we are,” said linebacker Matthew Judon. “When we are consistent, it looked good. When we focused and we’re locked in, it looked good. But when we’re not, it doesn’t. That’s who we are. I mean, at this point, you showed your hand. And so, as a team, we’ve just got to come back and be consistent for the rest of the games we play and the rest of the time we’re here.”
In spite of the shortcomings the 2022 Patriots have, Judon does see some positives as well.
“We are just a band of brothers and we stand behind each other,” he said. “We expect each other to play better every game. It doesn’t matter how many tackles you got, how many yards you got, how many touchdowns you got, we expect more from each other. And that’s how you lean on each other and become a good team.”
Becoming a good team has eluded the Patriots this season. They showed flashes of competitive play in all three phases, but ultimately appear to be headed nowhere mainly due to a lack of progress on offense. This, in turn, has given the team little wiggle room to absorb mistakes such as the Stevenson fumble.
In the past, the Patriots had the luxury of knowing they could count on all three units working in unison to play the oft-mentioned complementary game. This year’s team, however, does not and it shows in the inability to finish tight games.
For McCourty, however, comparing 2022 to any other year is a fool’s errand.
“It’s easy to say if you want to compare, but to me, there’s no comparison: this 2022 team is different from any other Patriots team,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of the same guys in the locker. A lot of those questions we’d get some year, we’d be playing with damn-near 80 percent of the same roster that just won those games two years ago. We don’t have that right now.
“I just think about it, this team needs to continue to build that. Each game, each experience is a new experience for this team. A lot of young guys; we have a second-year quarterback. Each thing builds. We have to take those lessons and keep getting better.”
It appears there is not enough time left in the 2022 season to ultimately apply those lessons, even if the Patriots miraculously sneak into the playoffs. However, they need to make sure to use them as building blocks for the future — or else they will remain stuck in their current state for some time.