FRANKFURT, Germany — Speaking in the bowels of Frankfurt Stadium on Sunday night, Matthew Slater offered a perfect encapsulation of the Patriots’ European experience.
“We almost had a phenomenal time,” the longtime special team captain said after his team’s thoroughly disheartening 10-6 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
The atmosphere in the stadium was electric. The German crowd was packed and passionate — and undeniably pro-Patriots. Sunday’s game almost felt like a Super Bowl, albeit one that happened to feature a mediocre team on one side and one of the NFL’s worst on the other.
The on-field product, though, didn’t come close to matching the spectable. The Patriots failed to score a touchdown despite reaching the red zone four time. Mac Jones was benched after a horrendous fourth-quarter interception. Bailey Zappe replaced him and threw a brutal pick of his own to end things.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who spent the last decade building up the team’s footprint in Germany, openly admitted how badly he wanted to win this game. Instead, he was forced to watch with dumbstruck disappointment as New England’s season from hell reached a new nadir.
According to multiple reports during the lead-up to Sunday, Kraft is unlikely to fire head coach Bill Belichick during the season. But it now feels like it would take a remarkable late-season turnaround for Belichick to keep his job for 2024.
Here are six takeaways on Sunday’s result as the 2-8 Patriots head into their Week 11 bye:
1. Mac Jones cannot continue on as New England’s starting quarterback
We covered this in much greater detail after the game (click here to read that story), but you can’t bench your QB with two minutes remaining in a one-score game and then turn around and start him the next week. That decision showed such a supreme lack of confidence in Jones that it would not be surprising if he never starts another game in a Patriots uniform.
It was justified, though. Jones’ fourth-quarter interception, on which he left a pass about 10 yards short of a wide-open Mike Gesicki in the end zone, might have been the worst throw of his career. It also came one drive after Jones had a would-be end-zone INT bounce off a defender’s hands, and two drives after offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien ripped him a new one on the sideline after an especially ugly third down.
The Patriots don’t appear to have any viable QB options on their roster. Zappe has been worse than Jones in his three relief appearances, Will Grier hasn’t played in a regular-season game since 2019 and Malik Cunningham isn’t even a full-time quarterback. Zappe and Cunningham also both have been cut already this season.
But it’s now abundantly clear that Jones is cooked. His confidence is completely shot. He’s still making the same bad decisions and playing with the same sloppy mechanics that got him benched a month ago.
Belichick wouldn’t say Sunday whether the Patriots planned to make a permanent change behind center, but they don’t have much of a choice at this point.
2. The defense should be getting sick of this
Patriots defenders said all the right things after the game, with players like Jabrill Peppers and Myles Bryant stressing that unit also was far from perfect on Sunday.
But though New England’s defense faltered in some key spots against Gardner Minshew and company — most notably on third-down completions of 14, 28 and 30 yards — it only allowed three points after the opening series despite being without three of its best players in Matthew Judon, Christian Gonzalez and Ja’Whaun Bentley.
The Colts ran just one play inside the Patriots’ 30-yard line over the final three quarters. Indy scored just 10 points after topping 20 in each of its first nine games. And the Patriots forced a turnover (a third-quarter Bryant interception off a Jahlani Tavai tip) that gave their offense the ball at midfield.
Getting that kind of defensive performance and not leaving with a win is devastating. Peppers admitted it was “a little frustrating” to give up 10 points and still lose.
“But we had our chances to really put our foot on their throats and we definitely didn’t do it,” he quickly added.
3. The run game was a silver lining
The Patriots ran the ball a lot in this game, and they ran it well. Rhamondre Stevenson set a season high for carries and averaged 4.4 yards per (20 for 88). Ezekiel Elliott added 54 yards on 13 attempts, his highest totals since Week 3. Add in Mac Jones’ three scrambles for 25 yards, and New England racked up a season-best 167 yards on the ground at a 4.6 yards-per-carry clip.
One 15-play fourth-quarter drive that produced a field goal featured nine running plays, two scrambles and one completion to Elliott, who along with Stevenson accounted for a third of Jones’ 15 completions in the loss.
“I think the positive was we ran the football really well,” tight end Hunter Henry said. “I think everybody in the entire stadium, maybe whoever was watching the game, probably knew we were running the football and we were still able to run the football. That’s probably the one positive we can take from it.”
The defense was stout against the run, too, holding Indy’s Jonathan Taylor-led ground game to 2.7 yards per carry on 26 attempts.
4. The non-Douglas wideouts were nonfactors
Sixth-round rookie Demario Douglas had the best game of his young career with six catches on nine targets for 84 yards. The rest of New England’s receivers did … a whole lot of nothing.
JuJu Smith-Schuster had more pre-snap penalties (two) than receptions (one on one target for 9 yards) despite playing 50 snaps. Kayshon Boutte, who was back in the lineup for the first time since Week 1, wasn’t targeted until the fourth quarter and finished with one catch for 11 yards. Jalen Reagor played one snap. Tyquan Thornton played zero, raising the question of why he was even active for this game.
Thornton’s last four weeks: three snaps against Buffalo, healthy scratch against Miami, benched early in the second quarter against Washington, dressed but didn’t play against Indianapolis. He has three total catches this season and continues to look like a major second-round draft whiff.
No matter who’s playing quarterback for the Patriots moving forward, it’s going to be tough to throw the ball with this collection of pass-catchers. Douglas is a young stud and here to stay, but the rest of this group needs a full-scale offseason makeover.
5. Jack Jones still is in the doghouse
The Patriots didn’t leave Jones back in the States like they did with J.C. Jackson, but the second-year cornerback saw the lightest workload of his NFL career. He logged just 10 snaps in the loss, his lowest total in any game he did not exit due to injury.
Jones, who reportedly missed curfew at the team hotel before the Washington game, sat out the first two series Sunday and played sparingly thereafter. He clearly knew he was not seeing the field during those opening drives, as he spent nearly the entire first quarter seated on the bench with a hood over his head.
Substitutes typically stand on the sideline next to the defensive coaches. For the second straight week, Jones did not do that, giving off the impression that he was not fully engaged. Though he did see some playing time, the Patriots opted to roll with Jonathan Jones (54 snaps) and Shaun Wade (50) for most of the game.
Peppers, who said he has a “very good relationship” with Jones, planned to have a chat with the young corner to “see where his head’s at.”
6. The failed punt block was doomed from the start
Rigoberto Sanchez’s field-flipping 69-yard punt in the second quarter was made possible by the Patriots’ choice not to deploy a deep return man. New England gambled, hoping for a block, and it failed.
It wasn’t an all-out block, though. The Patriots sent eight rushers after Sanchez, with Cody Davis and usual returner Douglas standing in no-man’s land 15 yards off the line of scrimmage and Adrian Phillips feigning a rush before dropping off. Indianapolis had kept its gunners out wide and still had blockers for all of New England’s players.
On the surface, going for a block in that situation, with Sanchez punting from near his own end zone and New England’s offense sputtering, was a defensible call. One big play on special teams might have won the game for the Patriots. But the Colts were one step ahead.
“We had a scheme in place that we liked, and you give them a lot of credit,” Slater said. “… We liked the plan going in, and sometimes things don’t turn out the way you’d like them to. Kudos to them for the way they picked that up and the way they adjusted to it.”
Rookie kicker Chad Ryland also shanked a 35-yard field goal in this loss, and New England’s kickoff team allowed a 42-yard return by Isaiah McKenzie that led to a late Colts field goal. It was another dismal day for the Patriots’ special teams, which rank among the worst in the NFL this season.