Patriots

Special teams blunders cost Patriots in loss to Vikings

A 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a running into the kicker penalty hurt New England in the second half.

Kene Nwangwu returns a kick off for a touchdown against the Patriots on Thursday. Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Four days after a brilliant special teams play gave the Patriots a thrilling win over the Jets, a series of special teams gaffes led to an eventual 33-26 loss to the Vikings on Thursday.

The first mistake – and without question the most costly – came with 10:41 left in the third quarter when Minnesota’s Kene Nwangwu returned a kickoff 97 yards to the house to tie the score at 23.

Nwangwu deserves credit for making something out of nothing and turning on the jets, but the Patriots deserve blame for failing to bring him down despite several chances. The refs also deserve some blame for appearing to miss a hold on Kyle Dugger, yet even so, the Patriots should have never let it happen.

The timing wasn’t quite as significant as Marcus Jones’s clutch return against New York, but the play itself was just as impressive. Nwangwu made a quick move to burst toward the sideline, managed to stay in bounds, zigzagged his way past multiple defenders, and took off.

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“Really, that’s the difference in the game,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “That’s seven points that end up being bonus points in the game.”

After the teams traded field goals, the Patriots came up with a key stop on third and long to force a Minnesota punt with 11:04 left in the game.

Pierre Strong Jr. ran into punter Ryan Wright, however, which gave the Vikings a crucial first down. Three plays later, as dangerous teams often do, the Vikings capitalized to take the lead.

Kirk Cousins hit Adam Thielen for a 15-yard strike, and that ended up being the difference. There’s no way to know what would have happened if Strong hadn’t hit Wright, but the miscue unquestionably gave Minnesota momentum at a key juncture.

After the Patriots went three-and-out on the ensuing drive, New England’s Michael Palardy punted the ball just 31 yards. The Vikings had ideal field position and were able to take advantage with a better punt of their own.

Neither team scored on its next drive, then Wright delivered a 59-yard beauty to the 1-yard line. Instead of letting the ball bounce into the end zone, Jones tried to return it and only made it to the 11.

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The Patriots ran out of time and fell to 6-5 after losing a winnable game.

“Too many mistakes they took advantage of,” Belichick said. “That really is the difference in the game.”

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