The New England Patriots seemed to enjoy home field advantage, despite Sunday’s game taking place in Frankfurt, Germany. After two decades of dominance, which included several German NFL players, the Patriots fandom in Germany is considerable. Today the folks in Frankfurt got a glimpse of what the 2023 Patriots look like. It was not pretty.
Solid Start Stalls in the Red Zone
The first quarter of the game was occupied by two drives, one for each team. It was a microcosm of how this season has gone for New England.
The Patriots received and began the opening drive at their own 20-yard line. The offense controlled the clock, staying on the field for the first 6:49 of the game. They picked up four first downs on their way down the field, effectively balancing the running and passing attacks. Ezekiel Elliott was particularly effective on the drive. With the Patriots on their own 48-yard line, Elliott caught a pass out of the backfield, evaded a tackler, and picked up a 19-yard gain. He then took three consecutive handoffs for a total of 19 more yards. New England had second-and-six at the Colts 14-yard line.
— NFL (@NFL) November 12, 2023
Rhamondre Stevenson replaced Elliott and ran for no gain on second down. Mac Jones was then sacked on third down. The Patriots drive stalled out in the red zone, and they had to settle for a 37-yard Chad Ryland field goal. Just the same, the drive was promising, and they put points on the board to take an early 3-0 lead.
When Indianapolis took over it would have been big for New England to get the Indianapolis defense back on the field immediately. But instead of a three-and-out, or anything close to it, the opposite occurred.
The Colts held the ball for even longer, keeping the Patriots offense off the field for 7:13.
Coming into the game, taking away the Indianapolis rushing attack was going to be the focus of the defense game plan for New England. But right out of the gates they failed to do just that. The Colts set things up with a three straight passes, the third resulting in a 30-yard gain from Gardner Minshew to Isaiah McKenzie. After that, they just ran down the throats of the Patriots.
Ten of the next 11 plays were runs, ending in the end zone on a Jonathan Taylor fourth down carry from the one.
Despite an incredibly promising start to the game for the opposition, the other team answered. At the end of the first quarter the Colts led 7-3. It was a very familiar feeling for New England in 2023.
The German broadcast call of Jonathan Taylor's TD 🗣️
— NFL (@NFL) November 12, 2023
No Offense in Second Quarter
There were nine total possessions in the second quarter. They resulted in seven punts, a missed field goal (by the Colts), and the end of the half.
The first four New England possessions were all stalled by a sack. Each drive involved Mac Jones going down. Three times this occurred on a third down play before punting. Jones was under pressure, and had no chance on one sack, but some of the blame also fell on Jones, who both held onto the ball and/or seemed to be awaiting the contact. It was such a stark contrast to the confidence with which he stood in the pocket in the Patriots last win against the Buffalo Bills.
Indianapolis did not fare much better. They went three-and-out on their first two drives. On their third possession of the second quarter Minshew found Alec Pierce for a 21-yard gain but couldn’t advance any further. Their last possession ended when they went for a long field goal attempt on first down with 11 seconds remaining in the half. Matt Gay’s 57-yard attempt was down the middle, but just short. It gave New England the ball back with seven seconds to play from midfield. One play later the teams headed to halftime with the Colts still leading 7-3.
Questionable Coaching Decisions
Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots coaching staff made a few head-scratching decisions in the first half of this one.
Although Kayshon Boutte, Tyquan Thornton and Jalen Reagor were all active, none of them saw much time in the first half. Demario Douglas and JuJu Smith-Schuster were the primary receivers, with Mike Gesicki being used as a third receiver on most plays. Bill Belichick stated this past week that, “Mike (Gesicki) is really our fifth receiver.” But it was not the personnel decisions that got attention in the first half, it was two specific play calls.
On the Colts second offensive possession of the game, the Patriots defense forced a three-and-out. Indianapolis was pinned back at their own 13-yard line. Even a solid punt would likely give New England the ball near midfield on their next possession. But the Patriots decided to go for blocking the punt…with everybody. They did not leave anybody back to field the punt. Thus, when the punt block failed, the punt was able to roll 69 yards. In one play the ball shifted from the Colts 13-yard line to the Patriots 18-yard line. The decision not to have anyone back was an odd one.
The @Patriots went for the all out punt block with no returner on the field.
— NFL (@NFL) November 12, 2023
When the Patriots got the ball on the final play of the second half they were at their own 47–yard line with seven seconds to play. New England was trailing 7-3 and had nothing to lose with their 2-7 record. It seemed the options were to either run one quick play to set up a field goal or a bomb, or just attempt the Hail Mary on the final play. But the Patritos did neither. Mac Jones threw a wide receiver screen to DeMario Douglas who picked up 30 yards and ended the half. Was Douglas supposed to go out of bounds? If not, what were the Patriots hoping to accomplish on that play?
Patriots Need Some Playmakers
One thing that stood out in the first half, as it has all season, is how few playmakers the New England Patritos have. Ezekiel Elliott appeared to be ready to make a difference on the first drive, but then was underutilized for the rest of the half. The defense did a nice job in the first half, but they were not able to register any sacks or cause any turnovers.
Arguably, the three biggest playmakers on the Patriots are all out for the season: Matthew Judon, Christian Gonzalez, and Kendrick Bourne. Players like Rhamondre Stevenson, Demario Douglas, Kyle Dugger and Jabrill Peppers have shown flashes, but not with enough consistency. New England has a lot of complimentary players, but nobody to compliment.
Wasted Opportunity to Start the Second Half
A pair of defenders attempted to be difference makers for New England to start the second half. Linebacker Jahlani Tavai, who has been one of the most consistently solid Patriots players all season, got a hand on a Gardner Minshew pass attempt. The deflected ball was an easy interception for Myles Bryant. He returned the interception back to the 50-yard and brought the Patriots offense back out onto the field with a chance to take the lead.
Ezekiel Elliott took three straight carries for a total of 16 yards. Rhamondre Stevenson entered and ran three times himself, gaining 19 more yards. The Patriots then called for a pass play on third-and-three from the Indianapolis 17-yard line. Mac Jones came under pressure, tossed a risky pass in the general direction of Stevenson, which fell incomplete. New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien was then seen tearing into Mac Jones on the New England Patriots sideline.
Bill O’Brien PISSED at Mac Jones pic.twitter.com/AclbRTblL7
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) November 12, 2023
Chad Ryland came on for the 37-yard field goal attempt and missed wide right. New England’s offense converted the interception into zero points. Colts remained ahead 7-3 and had the ball back.
Patriots Close the Gap
Indianapolis’ offense couldn’t generate anything on their next possession either. Their only significant yardage came courtesy of a questionable 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty called against Jahlani Tavai for a hit to the head of a defenseless receiver. Based on the call that was not made on Patriots wide receiver DeVante Parker against the Raiders (he still hasn’t played due to the resulting concussion) it seemed the NFL officiating lacks consistency at the very least. However, New England was still able to force the punt and get the ball back.
The Patriots controlled the ball for 15 plays, taking it all the way down to the five-yard line of the Colts. Mac Jones attempted only three passes, as the rushing attack was moving the ball. His first two passes were both completions, but on third-and-goal from the five he missed Hunter Henry badly in the end zone, overthrowing him. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was seen hanging his head following the play.
Robert Krafts reaction to Mac Jones NEARLY throwing a pic and completley missing Hunter Henry in the back of the endzone. 😳😳 pic.twitter.com/263ZlrSwDh
— Patriot RedZone (@PatriotRedZone) November 12, 2023
New England settled for another field goal attempt, this one converted by Ryland from 24 yards out. The Patriots had cut the lead to 7-6.
Indianapolis answered points of their own. Matt Gay hit a 51-yard field goal to increase the Colts lead to 10-7 with 8:54 to play in regulation.
End of the Mac Jones Era?
The Patriots drove the ball back into the red zone on the back of two long gains. The first was a 26-yard play. Jones found Kayshon Boutte across the middle for an 11-yard complettion. But as Boutte was going down, Colts linebacker Zaire Franklin hit him and was flagged for a 15-yard unnecessary penalty. Later in the drive Jones connected with Demario Douglas on a 21-yard completion.
With the ball on the Indianapolis 15-yard line, Mac Jones thew an interception that was tough to comprehend. With tight end Mike Gesicki running a post pattern to the corner of the end zone, Jones threw the ball to the two-yard line right into the awaiting arms of Colts safety Julian Blackmon. There were no Patriots within three yards of where the pass landed. It would be Mac Jones last snap of the game. It also left his future as the starting quarterback of the New England Patriots very much in doubt, as his tenth interception of the season took over sole possession of first place in the NFL.
Julian Blackmon intercepts Mac Jones at the goal line!
— NFL (@NFL) November 12, 2023
No Zappe Mania Today
New England’s defense had a chance to get off the field quickly and get the ball back in good field position. But on a third-and-five from their own 14-yard line, Indianapolis’ offense came up big.
Gardner Minshew avoided pressure to keep the play alive. New England was too late to get to Minshew on a four-man rush. On the left side, Patriots defensive end Keion White was blocked away, and Christian Barmore was thrown to the ground. This gave Minshew time to air out a pass, that was caught over the coverage of Myles Bryant and to the side of Jalen Mills for a 28-yard completion to rookie wide receiver Josh Downs. It was an impressive pass and catch, which could have ended the game.
But the Patriots defense continued to fight. Cornerback Shaun Wade made a nice open-field tackle on Michael Pittman on third down to get the ball back for New England. The punt sailed out of bounds at the 46-yard line. The Patriots offense needed to travel 86 yards with no timeouts and just 1:52 to play.
Bailey Zappe replaced Mac Jones at quarterback for the potential game-winning drive.
Zappe completed three-of -six pass attempts on the drive, setting up a fourth-and-one. Rhamondre Stevenson got the handoff and picked up one yard for a new set of downs. Zappe immediately took the snap and appeared he was going to spike the ball to stop the clock. However, the Patriots faked the spike. Instead, Bailey Zappe aired it out.
Taking a shot at a fake-spike gimmick play might not have been an awful idea. Throwing the subsequent pass into triple coverage certainly was. Zappe’s pass wasn’t close to being complete to Douglas. Robert Thomas picked off the attempt, effectively ending the game.
— NFL (@NFL) November 12, 2023
Final score: Indianapolis Colts 10, New England Patriots 6.
The New England Patriots (2-8) have a bye next weekend.