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Instant Analysis

Vikings were the first real test for the Patriots’ defense, and it didn’t meet the moment

NFL sack leader Matthew Judon (9) didn't get much pressure on Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Instant analysis from the Patriots’ 33-26 loss to the Vikings:

▪ Mac Jones and the offense broke out of their funk. And the officiating was pretty terrible. But the top story was that the Patriots’ defense finally played a real quarterback and a real offense, and looked decidedly average.

The Patriots beat up on the likes of Zach Wilson, Sam Ehlinger, and Mitchell Trubisky to enter Thursday’s game with the No. 2 scoring defense. But Kirk Cousins and the Vikings didn’t have much trouble slicing up the Patriots’ defense. Cousins was 30 for 37 for 299 yards and three touchdowns, the Vikings held the ball for 36:08, went 8 for 15 on third down, and authored drives of 80, 75, 72 and 65 yards to secure the win.

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Facing a Vikings’ offensive line that was missing its starting left tackle, the Patriots had just one sack (Josh Uche) and four QB hits on 39 passing plays. Matthew Judon was mostly quiet, with three tackles, two QB hits, and his third sackless game of the season.

And the Patriots had no answer for Justin Jefferson, who caught nine passes for 139 yards and a touchdown. We’re not used to seeing the Patriots get torched by a team’s top weapon, but Jefferson split double teams all night and showed why he’s the best receiver in the NFL.

The Vikings were one of the first big tests of the season for the Patriots’ defense. It didn’t meet the moment.

▪ I’m usually not a big fan of blaming the referees for a loss. But it was disappointing to see Alex Kemp’s crew painstakingly go frame-by-frame to overturn Hunter Henry’s touchdown catch, but miss some blatant calls — specifically, a holding penalty against Kyle Dugger on the Vikings’ 97-yard kickoff return touchdown, and a facemask by Vikings pass rusher Danielle Hunter on Jones on a key third-down incompletion midway through the fourth quarter.

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Making these calls in real time is very difficult. But it certainly wasn’t “clear and obvious” for the officials to overturn Henry’s touchdown, and they missed some clear penalties.

▪ The Patriots’ offense looked a lot better, gaining 409 yards and scoring points on six of their first seven drives. Jones threw for 382 yards and two touchdowns, his first multi-touchdown game of the season, and he looked much more comfortable in the pocket and able to make big throws downfield. Jones’s touchdown passes of 37 and 34 yards were the Patriots’ second- and third-longest of the season. Most importantly, Jones had great protection all night and took just three QB hits on 42 passing plays despite the Patriots playing with backups at center and right tackle.

But the Patriots’ offense still has major issues. Most alarmingly, it went 0 for 3 in the red zone, continuing its woeful season (ranked 31st in touchdown percentage). And in the fourth quarter, with the game on the line, the offense turned into a puddle. They went punt, punt, turnover on downs, and then couldn’t get anything going on the last, frantic possession. This against a Vikings defense that ranked 19th in points allowed and 31st against the pass.

Thursday’s loss was a great step for Jones in overcoming his struggles. But it was still a disappointing night for the offense as a whole, with a horrible finish in the game’s tensest moments.

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▪ It’s weird to write that the Patriots’ special teams cost them the game, but that was the case. First the Vikings returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter, the first the Patriots have allowed since 2010 by the Bills’ C.J. Spiller. It appeared Dugger was held on the play, but there were 10 other Patriots who had a chance to bring down Kene Nwangwu, and didn’t.

The Patriots also committed a killer penalty early in the fourth quarter when rookie running back Pierre Strong was busted for running into the punter. Everything about that punt rush was out of sorts. Strong’s jump off the edge was way too late, and he didn’t come close to getting home. Strong then hit punter Ryan Wright on the foot with his helmet, earning a 5-yard penalty and giving the Vikings new life. Three plays later, Cousins found Adam Thielen in the end zone for a 33-26 lead.

Finally, fill-in punter Michael Palardy struggled, with two of his three punts traveling 36 and 31 yards.

The Patriots’ special teams weren’t all terrible — Nick Folk went 4 for 4 on field goals and Marcus Jones had another dynamic kickoff return, going 46 yards. But critical and unusual breakdowns on special teams proved costly.

▪ It’s confusing why the Patriots don’t call more play-action, because it consistently produces the biggest plays. Thursday night, Jones found DeVante Parker for 10 yards on third and 1 with play-action, and later Henry was wide open for a 37-yard catch-and-run touchdown. Analytics have shown that you don’t need to run the ball successfully to be good at play-action. The Patriots should be calling it a lot more, because when they do it’s usually devastating.

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▪ Mac Jones looked great on the two-minute drive at the end of the first half, but poor clock management and decision-making cost the Patriots 4 points. Henry had the most egregious mistake when he stayed in bounds on a 22-yard catch-and-run, costing the Patriots their second timeout. Jones cost the Patriots their third timeout when he slid to the turf instead of throwing out of bounds. Bill Belichick was so upset that he kicked a ball on the sideline.

With no timeouts left, the Patriots were afforded just one shot at the end zone, and Jones surprisingly threw a jump ball to Kendrick Bourne instead of Parker, who is the Patriots’ jump-ball expert. Parker may have been double-teamed, but Matt Patricia and Jones should have found a way to get Parker the ball. Parker also should have gotten the ball on the final desperation heave in the fourth quarter, not Nelson Agholor.

The Patriots have struggled in the two-minute drill all season, with just four field goals. They finally executed some big plays, but were done in by bad situational football.

▪ The Patriots finally got a quick start on offense. Entering Thursday, they were the only team in the not to have scored a touchdown in the first quarter. But Patricia scripted a great opening drive, with the Patriots zipping right down the field for a 75-yard touchdown drive in five plays. Jones looked more confident in the pocket than he has in weeks, hitting Jakobi Meyers for 26 yards on the first play and then Agholor 34 yards down the middle for a touchdown.

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The touchdown tied the game at 7-7 and prevented the Patriots from having to play from behind all half.

▪ Dugger did not have his finest performance. In the first half, he struggled to keep with Vikings tight end T.J. Hockenson, who caught four passes for 32 yards and a touchdown. On the TD, Dugger abandoned the flat, then slipped when trying to change direction and cover Hockenson.

Dugger appeared to be the victim of a holding call that wasn’t flagged on the 97-yard kickoff return touchdown, so he gets a pass on that play. But while Dugger has thrived in run coverage this year, he continues to struggle in the pass game.

▪ Parker doesn’t make many catches, but he makes them count. He entered the game ranked third in the league with a 20.0-yard receiving average, and he led the way Thursday night with four catches for 80 yards. The Patriots need to get him the ball more, especially in the red zone.

▪ Another conservative decision by Belichick to kick a 46-yard field goal in the second quarter instead of going for it on fourth and 1. Folk made the kick, but the Patriots potentially left 4 points on the board. Most NFL coaches would have gone for it.

Read more from the Patriots’ loss to the Vikings


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.