Socci’s View: At 2-8, the Patriots can’t get out of their own way
Our Virgin Atlantic airbus sped through Canadian air space, closing in on Maine, in line with Bangor and, beyond there, Boston, when I awoke in my middle seat to the voice of Bono.
Somewhere between Frankfurt and New Brunswick, I’d switched out airline headphones for ear pods, opened the former iTunes app and shuffled U2’s stripped-down “Songs of Surrender.” Then I dozed off, eventually regaining consciousness to the sound of ‘Get Out of Your Own Way.’
So random. But apropos.
My phone, displaying Central European Time, read “4:11 a.m., Monday, November 13.” That’s 10:11 p.m. here; still nighttime of a Sunday that began with the Patriots losing to the Colts, 10-6, across the Atlantic.
An eighth loss in 10 games, it marked the third time this year’s Pats didn’t produce an offensive touchdown. The first two instances were in back-to-back October weeks vs. the Cowboys and Saints. Dallas and New Orleans feature top-10 scoring defenses. Unlike Indianapolis.
The Colts traveled to Germany, yielding 26.9 points a game, which ranked 28th in the NFL. In their last three losses, they gave up 37, 39 and 38 points.
On Sunday, they surrendered the sum of two field goals. Or, putting it more accurately, the Pats mustered only so much. Not necessarily shut down; they simply couldn’t get out of their own way.
Four times, including three of their last four possessions, they entered the red zone, reaching the 19-, 17-, 5- and 15-yard lines. The first three ended in field goal attempts: two makes sandwiching a miss. The fourth was stopped before one could even consider kicking.
Separated by four points just shy of the fourth-minute mark of the fourth quarter, Mac Jones unnecessarily faded away from his target and floated an under-throw toward the end zone. Colts strong safety Julian Blackmon caught it at his 1-yard line.
“A terrible throw,” Jones called it in his post-game press conference. As egregious as any of his then league-high 10 interceptions, it was also Jones’s final throw.
Backup Bailey Zappe, who last mopped up in the Cowboys and Saints defeats, replaced Jones for New England’s final series with 1:52 left. Advancing to the Pats’ 40-yard line and down to 36 seconds and no timeouts, Zappe was intercepted on a gimmicky play involving a faked spike.
Safety Rodney Thomas’s pick sealed the outcome and quarterback Gardner Minshew knelt once on foreign soil to make it official. The Patriots went all that way, accompanied by hundreds of New Englanders and greeted by thousands of their German fans to incur a recurring fate.
They rushed for 167 yards and a 4.6 average in 36 carries and allowed one touchdown — none after Indy’s first series — and lost. According to Boston Sports Info, NFL teams rushing for 150 or more yards, while yielding 10 or fewer points, had won 266 straight games.
Time of possession — the Pats had the ball for 34 1/2 minutes — meant nothing. Timing was everything. And offense wasn’t the only thing.
Down 7-3 in the second quarter, the defense forced a three-and-out pinning the Colts to their 13-yard line. As punter Rigoberto Sanchez took up residence inside the goal line, the Patriots dialed up a call designed to block his kick.
Brenden Schooler abandoned Indianapolis gunner Tony Brown, repositioning on the formation’s edge to outnumber the Colts up front. But Brown stayed put, luring returner Demario Douglas to stick close to him upfield.
After neither Schooler nor any other Patriot reached Sanchez, his punt carried to New England’s 35-yard line and bounced and rolled 17 more yards, before Brown picked up the ball and softly flipped it to an official. With a 69-yard kick, the field was flipped.
Still 7-3 midway through the third quarter, Patriots kicker Chad Ryland came out for his second field goal try. He was two yards closer than his first attempt, which gave his team the first lead. Yet, with a chance to draw within one, his kick faded high to the right. The score was unchanged.
Early in the fourth quarter, after Ryland made a 24-yarder in the other direction to make it 7-6, he kicked off to ex-Bronco and Bill Isaiah McKenzie. Receiving at the 5-yard line, McKenzie raced up the middle, unstopped until reaching midfield.
Although his return of 42 yards was twice as long as the Colts’ net yardage on the ensuing series, their 7-play, 20-yard ‘drive’ got them inside Matt Gay’s field-goal range. He hit his kick from 51.
Again, the margin was four points. Again, the Pats were in need of a touchdown to overtake Indy.
As for the one touchdown scored, it involved the continuation of a disturbing trend. Against Washington the previous week, the Patriot’s defense allowed a 53 percent conversion rate on third downs.
Going forward, getting off the field was a point of emphasis made by head coach Bill Belichick to the international media covering his team’s practice Friday afternoon at the DFB Campus. But at Sunday’s onset, the Colts kept going forward, converting four third- or fourth-down attempts on their 14-play, 75-yard drive.
The first was a 30-yard, 3rd-and-6 completion to McKenzie from Minshew, who if nothing else, lends entertainment value to the QB position with his swashbuckling, hair-flopping style. The last of the conversions was Jonathan Taylor’s 4th-and-1 scoring sweep around right end.
Thereafter, the defense did its part. Unfortunately, difference-making damage was done.
Ultimately, the offense couldn’t get out of its own way too often in critical moments and never found the way into the other end zone.
Playing in Germany was a years-in-the-making realization for the Patriots organization. They’ve cultivated a large local following thanks to native players (Sebastian Vollmer, Markus Kuhn, Jakob Johnson) and global outreach (broadcasts, social media, etc.).
Giving up a home game as part of the NFL’s International Series, the team’s mobilization was comparable to past Super Bowl experiences. Making themselves at home a long away from home, the Pats created a hub away from The Hub.
They opened Patriots Haus as a central gathering place. They brought Pat Patriot, the Patriots Cheerleaders and Patriots alumni. All were active at events around Frankfurt.
Hosting a party Saturday night at the beautiful Palmengarten botanical gardens, owner Robert Kraft took the stage. As he’d told the team the day before and reiterated to NFL Network the day after, Kraft ascribed an importance to the game that was as much personal as practical.
For most of Sunday, everything was in place to finish off a festive few days in a way befitting the enormous effort to make it happen. More than 51,000 were in attendance. Many wore jerseys of NFL teams. Most of them featured the Flying Elvis.
Fans drank half-liter steins of beer and roared and sang throughout and following the game to ‘Sweet Caroline’ and ‘Country Roads’ and to ‘Wonderwall’ and ‘Hey Jude.’ They raised up to do the wave to a-ha’s ‘Take On Me.’ But they never got to see what, safe to suggest, most partisans on hand longed to cheer: a Pats win.
Upon packing everything up, the team headed to Frankfurt Am Main Airport for the long journey home. Several exited graciously, thanking their hosts and praising the atmosphere. Deatrich Wise showed off a little German he’d learned. Matthew Slater and Ezekiel Elliot stopped for selfies on their way past the last locals left in the Haus.
Their next game is in two weeks. The setting — cold, gray MetLife Stadium in the New Jersey swamplands — will be anything but novel.
But at least it requires a much shorter flight and returns them to a place where they’ve already scored a touchdown and won a game this season. Back in Week 3 vs. the Jets. This time they’ll play the two-win Giants, who happen to be the only NFL team averaging fewer points than the Pats.
On Monday morning, the Patriots released troubled cornerback Jack Jones. More moves lie ahead. One possibly, if not probably, will involve the quarterback.
Belichick summoned Zappe from the bullpen with Sunday’s outcome on the line. Conventional thinking sees it as a signal of lasting change. But Belichick’s left himself wiggle room regarding his decision on the Week 12 starter.
Jones? Zappe? Will Grier?
Regardless of who among them starts against the Giants and in the subsequent six games, there’s only one good way forward for the Pats: get out of their own way.
Bob Socci is in his 11th season calling play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub.