Patriots

5 takeaways from the Patriots’ 27-17 loss to the Colts

The Pats aren't equipped to overcome mistakes.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick huddled with his defense coaches after the Colts scoring drive in the first quarter. Barry Chin/Globe Staff


Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 27-17 loss to the Colts — a contest in which Bill Belichick’s squad saw the script flipped on it, as this time it was the Pats who made so many mistakes their opponent didn’t even need a passing game to beat them.

The Pats aren’t equipped to overcome mistakes

Saturday night affirmed what has been a worry about these Patriots for a while: Between the lack of explosive playmakers and the reliance on the running game and a rookie quarterback, they’re not built for success when they fall behind, or when they can’t dictate the terms of the way the game is played. 

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The fastest way for a team to cede control of the scoreboard or the nature of play is to make multiple, major mistakes — and that’s exactly what happened to the Patriots for the first three-plus quarters at Lucas Oil Stadium.

In the process of falling into a 20-point hole, they gave away seven points on a blocked punt that became a touchdown, they forfeited an opportunity to score before the half with a brutal red-zone interception that foiled a promising drive, then they sabotaged the chance to reset in the second half with another pick at the start of the third quarter. Those were the big ones.

But it’s important to note that they weren’t the only errors. Much of the night was a series of breakdowns and bungled execution that limited the Pats’ chances to tilt the game. There were three drives extended because the Colts won the battle along the line to convert a fourth-down-and-short. There were a couple of would-be interceptions dropped. There was another wasted scoring chance late, when one of New England’s eight accepted penalties pushed them back from a goal-to-go chance at the Indy 2. 

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Even at the end, when they finally got to within three, and would’ve had a chance if they could make a stop, the defense that had kept them in the game let Jonathan Taylor go 64 yards to the end zone. That’s a good example of the reality that Saturday night helped to expose.

The Patriots are good enough to compete come playoff time, and fighting their way back within a score showed that they don’t need to be perfect. But they’re not good enough to get away with digging a hole for themselves or wasting opportunities. Especially against another good team, their talent level isn’t such that they can survive that style of game. And their season won’t survive if we see that again in January.

It’s disappointing they weren’t ready

Saturday marked the first time in 100 games that the Patriots didn’t score in the first half — and the offense wasn’t the sole unit sleepwalking through the early portion.

Special teams surrendered the punt block, and the defense allowed the Colts to steamroll it on Indy’s second possession. The Pats got pushed around during that series, with the hosts going 78 yards on eight plays without even attempting a true forward pass. (The 11-yard capper counts as a throw, but Frank Reich busted out a modified version of the Philly Special, and Wentz’s “touchdown pass” to Nyheim Hines was nothing but a six-inch toss play that happened to be forward.)

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It used to be that Belichick’s teams were almost unbeatable coming off a bye week. Saturday night, though, it seemed as though the Patriots were still on vacation, while the Colts were the team that returned from their break with a greater sense of urgency.

“I mean, they came ready to play, we didn’t come ready to play,” said tight end Hunter Henry, who scored both of New England’s touchdowns. “I mean, that’s a good football team. This is a very meaningful game in December, and we just didn’t come ready to play.”

“You spot a good team 20 points, at their place, good luck trying to win,” added special teams captain Matthew Slater. “It’s frustrating. There’s no excuse for it. There’s just no excuse to play like that — come out flat, uncharacteristic penalties, just basic stuff that we’re getting beat on, fundamentally not being sound.”

For much of the first half, the Colts appeared to be playing at a higher speed than the Patriots. They appeared able to rattle Mac Jones a bit, and they were the tougher team in the trenches on both sides. The physical, disciplined assertiveness that elevated the Pats to the top of the AFC over the course of a seven-game winning streak just wasn’t there.

That was disappointing – but it doesn’t need to be cause for concern quite yet. This team has shown enough and built up enough trust that it can be seen as merely that. As just a sluggish return to work after a couple of tremendous months.

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The Colts, on top of it, were the more desperate team according to the standings. There’s no reason to question the mental or physical toughness of these Patriots based on one bad effort. It’s a reminder of the mentality they need to maintain moving forward, but need not be blown out of proportion and into a panic.

Not a great night for the coaches

The tough start reflects poorly on the coaches responsible for preparing the Patriots and plotting the structure of a bye week that became a short week when the game was bumped up to Saturday night.

There were also a couple of crucial spots in the course of trying to come back, where the decisions deemed to be in the best interest of the team could’ve been called into question.

One came in the middle of the third quarter. By then, it was 20-0. Jones had been intercepted on each of the two previous series, and the next drive wasn’t exactly rolling in rhythm, but the Pats were getting desperate.

After a 10-yard completion to Nelson Agholor, they faced fourth and one from the Indy 47. The questionable decision wasn’t to go for it. Again, they were down three scores and time was ticking. The second-guess is the play call by Josh McDaniels. Rather than attempt a sneak, or slam it forward with Rhamondre Stevenson, the offensive coordinator put the ball in the hands of his quarterback.

The first option looked to be Henry breaking toward the right sideline in the flat, but he didn’t become available in time — and it’s hard to say what the second option was. Jakobi Meyers dragging over the middle? Agholor releasing up the hashes? It’s hard to identify because in the end, Jones lobbed a ball that was technically intended for Agholor, but the receiver was nowhere close, as the play never had a chance and the Pats lost the ball on downs.

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The other questionable choice came later, when Belichick again faced fourth down. This time his team was even more desperate. But this time he decided to kick. There were nine minutes left in the game, and the Pats trailed 20-7. That’s a two-touchdown deficit, but Belichick sent out his field goal unit when faced with fourth and goal from the Colts’ 7. In the coach’s defense, it would’ve been from the 2 had it not been for a false start penalty on Michael Onwenu, and on the subsequent play, Jones was sent scrambling by pressure before effectively throwing the ball away. 

Yet the time and score were screaming that the Pats needed a touchdown there. Taking the three left them in a spot where they needed to be perfect the rest of the way, and still needed at least two possessions. Going for it, whether they got it or whether the Colts took over inside their own 10, would’ve shifted additional pressure onto Carson Wentz and the Colts. Belichick should’ve maintained the same aggressiveness he showed near midfield earlier.

Sure, the coaches also deserve some credit for the team rallying back to within 20-17 as the game approached the two-minute warning of regulation, and the defense led by Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo limited Indianapolis to just 128 yards on the six series and 46 plays between the Colts’ two bookend touchdowns. But, on the whole, from start until close enough to the finish, Reich’s staff got the better of Belichick’s.

What’s up with the blocked punts?

Saturday’s blocked punt was the third against the Patriots this season, which flies in the face of the logic pertaining to a franchise that regularly rosters a handful of non-kickers whose only real purpose is to serve in the kicking game. It’s a troubling trend, to be sure.

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The latest mistake, though, looks to be an outlier. The two earlier blocks had the appearance of schematic breakdowns, where something in the Patriots’ setup was exposed by the opposition. Saturday night, the breakdown appeared to come as a result of a poor individual performance, with Jakob Johnson getting burnt in his attempt to block Matthew Adams as he rushed Jake Bailey.

Johnson has played an important role this season as the Pats’ fullback, and is an adequate blocker. On the punt, he just failed. Lined up as a guard, he missed his mark, let Adams speed through a hole, and barely interrupted his path to the pigskin.

Not much there to correct, other than Johnson doing a better job — but perhaps there’s still a lesson, as it relates to the Pats’ roster construction. Saturday’s loss showed the consequence that can come from a single slip-up on special teams.

Although 10 guys were executing, the problems of the 11th completely swung the tenor of the game. There’s much to be said for the reliability of guys like Slater, Justin Bethel, Brandon King, and Cody Davis in those situations, maybe most of all when the majority of the viewership never even notice their contributions.

Time to focus on the division

It was fun while it lasted, but the Patriots’ return to the top of the AFC standings is over, at least for now. And with that reality, New England’s followers should refocus their attention on the AFC East.

The good news is that a loss to the Colts didn’t destroy what’s at stake next Sunday against the Bills. If the Patriots win that game, they’re still in a position to eliminate Buffalo from the divisional race. The East would belong to the Pats, barring a jarring loss to the Jaguars combined with a perfect finish from the Dolphins.

Winning the East would give the Pats a home playoff game. With three games to go, securing that should be the top priority — and they control their own destiny there.

They don’t control their destiny in the conference anymore, not with the Chiefs (10-4) now a game up and with a real shot of finishing at 13-4. They could slip up and lose to the Steelers, Bengals, or Browns, but a loss to any of those mediocre gifts would be as much a present to the Patriots as anything that’ll be under the tree next week. 

It looks like the AFC is going to be going through Arrowhead Stadium. The Pats just need to make sure that if they’re in that conference championship game, they haven’t already played two other road games en route.

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