By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Thirty-one seconds. Third-and-25. A three-point lead.
It was all there for the Patriots. The upset special was on the table. Two more plays, and a memorable -- and somewhat shocking -- victory was theirs to hold.
After Cowboys guard Connor Williams committed two penalties -- a hold, which was declined, and an unsportsmanlike conduct, which was enforced -- the home crowd was buzzing, eager to see a simple defensive stop set off bedlam on the seasonably cool Foxboro evening, with the whole football nation watching.
It could have been the springboard to a winning streak. It should have been the moment to at least secure this victory.
But instead ... it was this:
Twenty-four yards. Field-goal range. Game tied. Game lost shortly thereafter.
It was, obviously, a massive play in the game. As for responsibility, Jalen Mills looked to have had a rough go on the game broadcast, but a look from above showed that he might have been in Cover 3. J.C. Jackson (top of screen), Devin McCourty (middle) and Mills (bottom) retreat as if they're responsible for deep thirds, while Kyle Dugger and Jonathan Jones play man coverage.
The deep seam route by Cedrick Wilson forced McCourty back into a deep center field role, thus opening the middle of the field for the deep in-cut by CeeDee Lamb. (Mills vacating the left side of the defense, giving the entire sideline to Ezekiel Elliott running a wheel route, leads me to believe Mills had Cover 3 responsibility but tried to adjust after seeing the middle of the field open up like that.)
"We'll watch it, but we're banged up, it's tough," McCourty said of the 24-yard reception. "You would want more DBs in but you guys could see, it was tough. ... A play we try to practice just wasn't executed well enough. That play was tough though."
Indeed, it was. Greg Zuerlein made the 49-yard field goal on the next play, and the energy inside Gillette Stadium sure did change in a hurry.
In the old days, the roles would have been reversed. It was always the Patriots who stormed back, made the opponents look like fools in such situations, and pulled off the incredible victories. But the old days, well, they're now officially the old days. Between the fumble vs. Miami, the missed kick vs. Tampa, and the pick-six vs. Dallas, the almosts and the ifs are stacking up. By now, we're seeing that the 2-4 record is ... what it is. The 2021 Patriots aren't a team that can do the little things to win games, which was the hallmark of that franchise for two decades.
"In the NFL, it takes maybe three or four bad plays and you lose the game. The margin of error is very slim," rookie QB Mac Jones said. "The games that we've lost, we've been two or three plays away, and I guess it's just how the NFL works. And I'm learning that the hard way."
He is, and so is the team. That third-and-25 in particular stands out as a doozy.
Anyways, there's plenty more, so let's hit them in the leftover thoughts from the 35-29 overtime win for Dallas over New England.
--You also have to give respect to the Cowboys, and specifically Dak Prescott and Cedrick Wilson, for this incredible play to convert a fourth-and-4 earlier on that game-tying drive:
That is, as they say, Big Time Football.
--There's also a thing called complementary football, and the Patriots weren't playing it.
With 2:42 left to play and a three-point lead, the Patriots took over after Zuerlein's missed field goal. They needed a couple of first downs to win the game. The Cowboys called their first timeout after a Damien Harris run for no gain.
Coming out of that timeout, the Patriots ... got penalized for a delay of game.
That failure to execute is a Jetsian way to lose football games.
Still, they could have gone with another running play or two, sapping the Cowboys of their timeouts. Or they could have converted a first down or two through the air to kill the clock.
Instead, Mac Jones threw a pick-six.
Another Jetsian moment for a team that had a win in its grasp.
You just can't do that.
There were others, too. The third-down pass to Nelson Agholor in overtime appeared to be a surprise to us and Agholor himself:
(The missed penalty there distracted from the fact that that pass was nowhere close to being completed.)
There was also red-zone execution issues, most notably the one involving N'Keal Harry needing to be told exactly what to do, leading to what should have been a delay of game penalty but instead led to the Patriots' worst offensive play of the day.
The Patriots did score on that drive, but it was simply too sloppy to omit.
One more thing to consider: After Damien Harris rushed for two yards on second-and-5 at the Patriots' 44-yard line in overtime, he immediately checked himself out of the game, jogging to the sideline, to be replaced by ... Brandon Bolden.
Whether that swap limited Josh McDaniels' play-calling or not on the third-and-4 incompletion, we can't know. But certainly, it might have been more beneficial to have Harris on the field in that situation. (At the same time, he was gassed late in that Miami game, which seemingly contributed to his fumble.)
All of that is to say, there was no one thing or one person responsible for the latest L added to the Patriots' record. It is, as ever, a team sport. And the team isn't playing well enough to earn these W's.
--On the positive front, I swore this was James White and not Rhamondre Stevenson in the open field making this cut:
That is five WHUPS on the Chris Berman Scale.
Stevenson ran up the right seam before hauling in a 22-yarder on the next play. That kind of versatility for a guy who's considered a bit of a power runner should be useful for this offense going forward.
(Stevenson also scored his first career touchdown on the day, which is always nice to see for guys who work so hard for so long to get to this level.)
--People are still too excited about Mac Jones, in my estimation. He may well end up being every Patriots fans' dream, but you just don't have enough evidence yet that he's your franchise guy. A part of that has to do with the kid gloves they're using to coach him at times, but a part of that has to do with some of Jones' own mistakes, too. (See: Diggs, Trevon.)
But if you're someone who really wants to get jazzed up about McCorkle, then boy, have I got a throw for you:
It's not as if he hit a dime on that play. BUT, he stood in the pocket, knowing some heavy pressure was about to reach him, and he put the ball in a space where his receiver had a chance to make a play on the ball. It's that fearlessness against pressure -- despite getting hit hard and often -- that has been Jones' most encouraging trait thus far in his young NFL career.
--Still, no need to go overboard. He has 1,472 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions. He's only beaten the Jets and Texans. His stats from his first six games resemble those of Christian Ponder (9 TD, 8 INTs, 1,423 yards) through his first six career starts.
His career could go in any one of a million directions. You have no idea which one it will be yet, I don't know which one it will be yet. It's best to evaluate him right now for what he is rather than what he might become.
--He also won't HAVE a future if his linemen are going to play like this:
--There are people who bemoan the new reality that "you can't hit anymore" in the NFL. In some cases, that's true. (Check out the roughing the passer penalty in the Arizona-Cleveland game if you want your blood reach a sizzling 212 degrees.)
But in some cases, yes, you can still play hard-nosed football.
You don't see it too often anymore. But physical play in the defensive backfield is still sometimes allowed to occur organically.
--I'm not here to say that Nelson Agholor should not have caught that ball in overtime. He should have caught the ball.
I am merely here to comment that in the Bucs game and in this game, Mac Jones has made a habit out of leading receivers a liiiiittttle too far on slants and inside stop routes. You saw it on the pick-six to Diggs, you saw it on what should have been the catch-and-fumble by Meyers vs. Tampa Bay (ruled incomplete on replay, somehow), and it feels like a simple thing he's going to have to correct.
--It is an absolute wonder that the Patriots didn't win the game, considering how freaking badass Matthew Slater looked for the OT coin toss with that tinted visor.
The man looks like an Avenger. How's an Avenger going to lose to the Cowboys? That's just a shame.
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