That the New England Patriots are still alive in the AFC playoff race is not a credit to them as much as the good fortune of chasing some teams that have bumbled their way into Christmas even worse.
Miami has lost four consecutive games. The Jets have lost four in a row. The Titans have lost five straight. What it all adds up to is that New England (7-8) will earn a wild-card berth if it wins its last two games.
Here’s the problem: This week’s opponent may be the slumping Dolphins (8-7), but the regular-season finale is against the first-place Bills (12-3). The Patriots’ best hope is that Buffalo has nothing to play for on Jan. 8 (and somehow forgets all the misery New England has inflicted upon it over the past 20 years).
Still, for a team that started 1-3 and lost four out of five from Thanksgiving to Christmas — one of them on a play that is in the running for one of the biggest regular-season blunders in NFL history — having something to play for with two weeks remaining is encouraging.
“We’re in a good spot here," quarterback Mac Jones said on his weekly radio appearance on Monday. "Just got to keep fighting.”
That depends on whether you’re talking about the first half of Saturday’s 22-18 loss to Cincinnati or the second.
In the first 30 minutes, the Patriots had 70 net offensive yards with three first downs while going 0-for-4 on third down conversions. On defense, they allowed Joe Burrow and the Bengals 303 yards and 22 first downs, including a 7-for-9 third down conversion rate.
In the third quarter, New England had a pick-6 for a touchdown to make it 22-6, and then in the fourth the Patriots had nine first downs (to three for Cincinnati), with 171 yards of offense (vs. 72) to make it a one-score game.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Situational football. For the second time in six days, the Patriots lost a winnable game on a turnover in the final minutes.
After last week's ill-advised double-lateral as time expired that led to Chandler Jones' walk-off 48-yard fumble recovery, New England again gave the ball away late. Trailing by four with a first-and-goal at the Cincinnati 5 with 65 seconds left, Rhamondre Stevenson had the ball punched out as he tried to churn for extra yards.
“Was trying to make something happen. Probably doing more than I was supposed to do,” he said. “Probably should have just went down.”
Stevenson, who has otherwise been one of the Patriots’ bright spots this season, was also the original ball-carrier who tossed the first lateral in the historic blunder against Las Vegas.
Coach Bill Belichick said on Monday he wouldn’t second-guess Stevenson on the Cincinnati play.
“Rhamondre’s ball security has been pretty good all year,” Belichick said. “He had the ball knocked out on the start of the second half there. Yeah, he had two hands on the ball. They’re running him back and they knock it out at the end.”
Defensive back Marcus Jones intercepted Burrow in the third quarter and ran it back 69 yards for a touchdown that was New England's first score of the game. He now has scored on a punt return, interception return and as a receiver. According to NFL Research on Twitter, the only other player to do that in his entire career was Deion Sanders.
It’s New England’s NFL-leading sixth defensive touchdown of the season.
The emergence of Kendrick Bourne as a big-play receiver against the Bengals points to a bigger problem: Why has he spent so much time on the bench this season.
A week after being targeted once while playing 11 snaps, Bourne had six catches for 100 yards and a touchdown, with five of the catches and the score coming in the fourth quarter. He was on the field for 57% of the offensive snaps — just the sixth time in 15 games he has played more than half the time.
“I’m just happy the coaches still believe in me,” Bourne said.
Asked why Bourne doesn't play more, Belichick said after the game: “No particular reason.”
Special teamer Brendan Schooler left in the first quarter with a shoulder injury; tight end Jonnu Smith was checked out early in the fourth quarter for a head injury; linebacker Matthew Judon walked off after being shaken up on a play in the fourth. They were all able to return. Tight end Hunter Henry left in the first quarter with a knee injury and did not return.
Bourne was New England's fourth 100-yard receiver of the season and first since Week 5, vs. Detroit. The Patriots did not have a 100-yard receiver last season.
Beat Miami, and the Patriots have playoff hopes. Lose, and they are done.
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