Patriots

The Patriots’ offense is still a chore, but Thursday finally gave us a glimmer of hope

It’s not often you’d call 26 points an offensive explosion, but considering where the Patriots have come from over the past few weeks, that’s not an exaggeration.

It wasn't the dsired result, but the Patriots' offense finally gave Patriots fans what they've been desiring. Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

For all the good the Patriots (finally) displayed on offense Thursday night in Minnesota, everything else fell apart.

Four days after leading New England to a last-second victory over the New York Jets, its special teams bottomed out; directly leading to 14 points for the Vikings off a kickoff return and a costly fourth-quarter penalty on rookie Pierre Strong for running into the punter. The Patriots’ secondary, meanwhile, couldn’t handle Justin Jefferson (who can?), who torched New England for nine catches for 139 yards and a touchdown. Indeed, “Primetime” Kirk Cousins (299 yards, three touchdowns, one interception) took Thanksgiving night off in leading his team to a 33-26 win, giving the Vikings a commanding five-game lead in the NFC North with only six left to play.

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The Patriots weren’t able to find the same holes in Minnesota that the Dallas Cowboys were able to last weekend. Yet, after all that, for the first time all season, the Patriots gave reason for hope.

It’s not often you’d call 26 points an offensive explosion, but considering where the Patriots have come from over the past few weeks, that’s not an exaggeration. It happened to be the most offensive points the team has produced since its 38-15 win over the Cleveland Browns last month (New England’s offense scored only one touchdown in its 26-3 win over the Colts three weeks ago). Despite missing center David Andrews, the much-maligned offensive line produced its best performance out of nowhere against the Vikings, giving quarterback Mac Jones manageable time to find open receivers. That helped give the quarterback his best performance of the season (382 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions) by a long shot. Jones had his best output as a professional in throwing for nearly 400 yards, and for the second-straight week, pushed into the century mark with his passer rating (119.8).

But of their 11 drives on the evening, four stalled for Nick Folk. The referees, wearing purple-hued turkey goggles, took away a (second) touchdown from tight end Hunter Henry for reasons we can’t figure other than he stole the last drumstick from Walt Anderson’s pregame bird. The Patriots wound up 0-for-3 in the red zone, continuing their season-long woes (the Vikings took the ball into the end zone three of five times from the red zone).

It all helped lead the Patriots back to last place in the AFC East with a 6-5 record that might still be good enough for a playoff spot. If Thursday gave us anything, it at least gave us reason to believe in that possibility.

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For all the defensive and special-team blundering, New England actually looked like a competent unit for three quarters Thursday night, something you couldn’t have said about the team since late 2021. The Vikings held the Patriots off the scoreboard in the fourth quarter, when offensive “guru” Matt Patricia lost his glass slipper, but that’s how bad it has been watching the Patriots this season; 26 points and a semblance of just moving the football with at least some shred of authority should have Patriot fans tickled blue.

What they might have ultimately learned though is that the defense, so dominant against the offensively-challenged likes of the Jets and Colts, isn’t quite good enough yet to stand up to the likes of the Vikings, Bills, and Dolphins to finish up the remainder of this season. Here’s an upset though; maybe the offense is.

Call the Vikings what you will, but no matter how incomplete a team as it might be, they still represented the stiffest competition the Patriots have faced in weeks. And New England went to downtown Minneapolis on Thanksgiving evening and nearly stole the night from them. If it weren’t for their own red zone issues, the refs not knowing what a catch is in 2022, and special team gags, the Patriots should be 7-4 heading into the weekend with a major showdown against the division-leading Bills set for (another) Thursday night. Heck, if Dan Campbell’s defense had any clue, the Lions should have taken Buffalo at least to overtime in the Thanksgiving appetizer. If the Lions had finished the upset bid, this game would be a battle for first place between a pair of 7-4 clubs. Instead, it’s going to take wins in both matchups for the Patriots to catch up to the Bills.

Doable? Before Thursday the idea was laughable. Now that the Patriots might have some flow on offense? We’ve seen stranger things happen.

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We’ve also seen the defense regress like “bogeymen” too. No matter what the offense might have left in the tank for December, the lack of a defining characteristic might still sink these Patriots.

But at least Thursday night gave us reason to hope that going down with the ship might be a lot more fun than we had originally planned.

The Patriots’ offense isn’t where it needs to be, but at least there are signs of life. Finally. Whether it’s emerging at just the right time, or if it’s a matter of being too little, too late, remains to be seen. As does waiting to see if the “bogeymen” have another late-season collapse planned.

Was Thursday a harbinger or a jewel in the rough?

The Bills — and a decided lack of wind — might hold some of those answers Thursday night.

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