FOXBOROUGH – Rhamondre Stevenson has been hailed as one of the top offensive weapons on the Patriots this year. But after these last two games, one has to wonder what they really have in this guy.
Last week, Stevenson set in motion the ghastly events which resulted in the walk off touchdown by Chandler Jones out at Las Vegas. This week, on Christmas Eve at frigid Gillette Stadium, Stevenson coughed up the football just five yards short of a touchdown with 55 seconds left, and the Cincinnati Bengals held on for a 22-18 win. Stevenson has now shown a propensity for bad situational football in two consecutive games, and the two losses the Patriots have suffered find their way to their young running back from Oklahoma.
The Bengals, who are defending AFC champs, were up 22-0 at the half, and the game was not as close as that. Joe Burrow, who may be the actual top quarterback in the NFL, was going through the Patriots like a knife through butter. The Bengals had five possessions in the first half and scored on four of them. The opening drive for Cincinnati went 76 yards in five plays and ate up only 2:36 of the clock. Burrow hit Tee Higgins for 39 yards, then Higgins finished off the drive with a 9-yard touchdown catch.
The Patriots looked like they were still not over last week’s mind-numbing loss against the Raiders in the first half. The Patriots looked listless, and at times it also looked that they were not competing. The first four drives had these amount of plays (all ending in punts): three, three, five and four. Mac Jones did next to nothing in the first half, but part of the problem was that no one was getting open. Eventually both Hunter Henry (knee) and Jonnu Smith (concussion) left the game for good, giving Jones pitifully few weapons.
The “not competing” part is upsetting if you are a Patriot fan. The game had a “get on the bus” feel in the first half. It being Christmas Eve, the forlorn Patriots looked like they simply wanted to get the game over with, then get to their families and the stockings, presents, food and church services. The Patriots did not even remotely resemble a competitive team, let alone a winning team.
And the fans were getting on Jones again. It looked a lot like the Jets-Jaguars game on Thursday night, where Zack Wilson was booed every time he touched the ball before he was replaced by some practice squad guy from Canada. It would not have been an astounding development if Bill Belichick had decided to bring in Bailey Zappe for the second half, if for no other reason to prevent Jones from getting hurt thanks to an offensive line that perhaps didn’t have enough gas in the tank or desire in the heart to protect Jones like they should.
Trailing 22-0, the Patriots took possession of the ball but (again) punted after four plays. The Patriot defense responded with inducing the first Cincinnati punt of the game, giving the fans a flicker of hope. But the Patriots (again) went three and out, giving the ball back to the Bengals.
Burrow took over at the Cincinnati 45 and drove to the Patriot 32. A holding call on Max Scharping moved the ball back to the 42. On third down and 11, Burrow dropped back, came under a heavy pass rush, then threw off his back foot and tried to hit JaMarr Chase on a deep right sideline pattern. The floating duck was picked off by Marcus Jones at the 31, and Jones skipped along the sideline and ran it back to the house. The pick-six made it 22-6, and the game turned towards the Patriots and stayed there until the fumble by Stevenson.
The Patriots forced a three and out, then took over at the 23-yard line. Jones then led the Patriots on a 77-yard drive in 11 plays. As the game moved on into the fourth quarter, Jones found Kendrick Bourne in the right corner of the end zone to make it 22-12. Jones failed to connect with Jakobi Meyers on a two-point conversion, and the score stayed at a ten-point deficit for the Patriots.
It should be said at this time that the cold weather had a profound effect on the placekicking game. The temperature was 17 degrees with a 4-degree wind chill. Both Nick Folk and Evan McPherson had problems kicking; Folk missed both his conversion attempts and McPherson had a missed field goal and a missed conversion. Kicking a football in weather like this is like kicking a rock. If Folk had connected on all three conversions, the Patriots still lose 22-21. So Folk did not lose the game for the Patriots.
After a missed McPherson field goal from 43 yards out, the Patriots took over at their own 33 with 8:55 to go in the fourth quarter. After a sideline no-catch call on Bourne was overturned and he caught a 28-yard pass, the Patriots began to disintegrate.
After a one-yard loss by Stevenson, Jones was called for intentional grounding, and he was lucky that it wasn’t a scoop and score by Germaine Pratt. A false start by Trent Brown put the ball at the Bengals 48-yard line, the Patriots facing a 3rd down and 29.
Jones dropped back, and heaved a deep post throw to practice squad tight end Scotty Washington. The ball tipped off Washington and into the hands of Meyers, who walked into the end zone. It was the unlikeliest of touchdowns for the Patriots, but the score stood at 22-18 when Folk’s extra point attempt sailed wide right.
The Bengals got the ball back with 5:58 left, and Burrow needed to run clock and keep the ball away from the Patriots. But on the fifth play of the drive, Burrow hit Chase in the right flat. Matt Judon was right there to hit Chase, but he failed to make the tackle. However, Judon did cause Chase to fumble the ball, and Marcus Jones recovered at the Cincinnati 43. The Patriots had the ball with 3:08 left and all three timeouts. The Bengals were shell shocked and not believing what was going on.
A right sideline pass to Marcus Jones (again) got the Patriots to the 16-yard line as the two-minute warning hit. The Patriots would eventually push the ball to the five-yard line, first and goal, and Cincinnati out of timeouts.
One might have wondered if Zack Taylor might opt to let the Patriots score, figuring that Burrow could bring the Bengals back with 55 seconds left to get at least a field goal. That did not happen, and Bengal fans were thrilled with the result.
Stevenson took the handoff and plowed up the middle. As his forward progress was being stopped for a three-yard loss, Vonn Bell stripped the ball from Stevenson. B.J. Hill recovered at the 8-yard line, effectively ending the game. The Patriots did get the ball back, but they gained only 15 yards and eventually turned the ball over on downs.
The Patriots finish their home schedule next week against Miami. The Patriots are 7-8 and do not look like a playoff team, whether or not they actually do make the playoffs. The Patriots no longer have control of their own destiny, and maybe the young players need a closer look.
The Patriots will find lumps of coal in their stockings tonight thanks to a loss that could have been a win. Two weeks in a row, and the Patriots have to lick their wounds once again. The Patriots will find happiness and comfort in their families, but in terms of all things football, Burrow is Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch all rolled into one.
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