Mac is back. The Patriots can be thankful for that while they choke down a disappointing Thanksgiving Day defeat. They lost a football game but rediscovered the promise of their quarterback.
In an underwhelming season for the second-year signal-caller, Mac Jones reminded everyone Thursday night why the Patriots were so bullish on him coming into this year. Jones led an unexpectedly potent Patriots offense that had scored two offensive touchdowns in three games to 26 points. Jones threw for a career-high 382 yards, going 28 for 39 with 2 touchdowns, and was turnover-free for a third straight game.
The Patriots have to settle for a Mac Moral Victory as they fell, 33-26, to the Minnesota Vikings and their coach, former Patriots quarterback Kevin O’Connell. Another former Belichick employee upstaged him and his defense, which folded like a fancy place-setting napkin, at US Bank Stadium.
Entering as winners of five of six, the Patriots returned to the scene of the Super Bowl LII crime. They once again wasted a great performance from their starting quarterback, just like last time.
We got the Jones-Kirk Cousins shootout we all predicted and that a stuffed America was clamoring for. For much of the night, Jones and Cousins were mirror images under center, and that was a good thing.
“I feel like he grew. That’s just an even more resilient, even more mentally tough Mac,” said wide receiver Jakobi Meyers. “Probably, that’s just a better Mac, you know what I mean.”
This columnist has opined that Jones’s ultimate ceiling is as a Cousins doppelganger, not a popular notion in Patriots Nation. Perhaps, you’ll reconsider.
During the Brady years, Patriots fans scoffed at QBs like Cousins. This season they would give their Belichick hoodie to have a QB playing at Cousins’s career level — three Pro Bowls and three 30-TD pass seasons.
Both maligned quarterbacks did some Thanksgiving Day carving.
Cousins was 30 of 37 for 299 yards with 3 touchdown passes and an interception. He delivered the game-winning score. One play after he hit Justin Jefferson, uncoverable all night (9 catches for 136 yards on 11 targets) for a 36-yard gain, he hit Adam Thielen for a 15-yard strike in the back of the end zone, putting Minnesota ahead to stay with 9:34 to go.
“Cousins was tough. He made a lot of good plays, and throws and checks,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “He’s a good player. It’s disappointing to come up a little bit short. We just had too many mistakes they took advantage of.”
Cousins is like a human Rubin’s Vase. What do you see? A top-10 NFL quarterback or walking turnover-waiting-to-happen. He displayed both on this night, but far more of the former, unfortunately for the boys from Foxborough.
Meanwhile, Jones looked reborn against Minnesota’s porous pass defense and injury-depleted secondary. The Vikings ranked 31st in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game and in opponent completion percentage. In addition, they were down three cornerbacks.
Still, Jones and the Patriots taking advantage of the Vikings’ defensive woes was far from a sure thing. They had scored just four offensive TDs in four games since Jones’ return, and two of those came against the Bears with Bailey Zappe at the controls after Jones retreated to the bench while hearing boos from his own fans.
The question now will be whether this was just a one-off for Mac and the Patriots’ passing game under ideal offensive conditions — indoors, a team that plays a ton of zone, and surrenders a ton of yards.
“It just shows what we can do when we don’t hurt ourselves,” said Meyers. “It’s a momentum-builder. If the guys just all bond together, and we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot. We should be alright.”
Still, there were issues: 0 for 3 in the red zone against the worst red zone defense in the NFL and zero fourth-quarter points.
That’s why a disappointed Jones was in no mood to trumpet his revival.
“The result wasn’t what we wanted, but as you said, there were some good things there,” said Jones.
There just weren’t enough of them with the defense getting scalded by O’Connell’s offense all night. Or is it Skol-ded after that ubiquitous Vikings battle cry?
Jones was on fire in the first half, which ended in a 16-all tie. He was 12 for 15 passing for 148 yards with a 34-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor on the first drive. The Patriots scored a first-quarter touchdown for the first time all season. Jones looked like the QB the Patriots put all their chips on last year.
Mac opened the second half by leading the Patriots on an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to retake the lead. He connected with Hunter Henry on a play-action 37-yard strike. Mac was cooking on Thanksgiving. At that point, he was 17 of 21 for 221 yards with two TD passes, his first multi-TD pass game of the season.
The last time Jones had captained a touchdown of that distance before last night was Sept. 25 against Baltimore, nearly two months ago. He did it twice in the first 35 minutes.
Jones had another TD pass wiped out by a picayune replay reversal that no doubt elicited a lot of expletives across New England.
After hitting DeVante Parker on a 40-yard pass to the Minnesota 7, Jones appeared to exorcise the Patriots’ red-zone woes when he hit Henry for a 6-yard score. But after a lengthy replay review, the TD was overturned, the ruling being that Henry lost control of the ball as he hit the ground. The Patriots settled for a field goal and a 26-23 lead with 6:43 left in the third quarter
There’s obviously just bad vibes and bad juju in the Vikings’ building for Belichick and Co. Call it the Curse of the Benching of Malcolm Butler. Maybe, one day there will be a five-part Netflix documentary that explains Belichick’s decision to bench Butler.
Those Nick Folk points were the last ones the Patriots would score. As well as he played, there was no Mac Magic in Minnesota.
He got the ball twice — with 4:21 to go at his own 13 and at his 11 with 53 seconds left — and couldn’t summon a signature comeback.
That will have to be next on Mac’s redemption tour list.
Read more about the game:
- Instant Analysis: Vikings were the first real test for the Patriots’ defense, and it didn’t meet the moment
- Between the hash marks: Patriots fail to keep up with the Vikings in the fourth quarter and lose in the end
- How it happened: Patriots’ offense fizzles out after three furious quarters in loss to Vikings
- Hear officials explain why Hunter Henry’s second-half touchdown was overturned
- Box score: Vikings 33, Patriots 26
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.