Football is a sport that can change momentum in an instant.
Down 22 points at halftime, nobody, not even the biggest optimists in the world, thought that the Patriots would be able to work their way back into a one-score game.
For starters, the New England defense was getting torched by Joe Burrow, allowing the LSU graduate to go 28/36 with 284 passing yards and three touchdowns after just two quarters of football. If this massacre went on at the same pace, Burrow would finish with 568 yards and six touchdowns: a performance that was sure to put him into NFL record books.
On the opposite side of the ball, the Patriots offense saw just as much, if not more, failure than the defense.
Mac Jones had 34 passing yards, and the offense was yet to take a snap in the opponent’s territory. For the first time in ages, Patriots fans were beginning to feel what Jets fans have been feeling for the last seven decades: hopelessness.
New England was getting overpowered, bullied, and tormented in every way you can imagine. Something would have to change if they wanted to keep their playoff hopes alive. If they didn’t fight back, Belichick’s squad would miss out on late-January and early-February football for the second time in three years. A spark would have to ignite, and there was no time to waste.
Patriots Enter The Second Half A Brand New Team
The first possession for New England started out promising. After a second-and-six pass interference call on Nelson Agholor that moved the sticks, the Patriots suddenly found themselves near midfield with some momentum.
However, an incomplete deep ball to Thornton on first down, no gain handoff to Stevenson on second down, and a second incomplete deep ball on third down to Bourne meant the Patriots offense was back to their first-half selves: way too many punts, and way too little yardage.
Michael Palardy punted for what seemed like the tenth time in the game, and Joe Burrow and the Bengals took over, looking to put the game further out of reach.
Burrow’s first play of the second half was a handoff to Joe Mixon, who took the ball 19 yards down the field, giving the Bengals another first down. Groans escaped the mouths of every Patriots fan.
Just ten plays into the second half, the Patriots were back to playing garbage football. They had no offense, no defense, and too much special teams. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Bengals had a 98.5% chance to win the game. All hope was lost for New England. Once the game ended, they would fall further into mediocrity, and all of their players would leave in the off-season. Belichick would be fired, and-
The Patriots forced a punt in the next three plays, and the momentum the defense created slowly carried over to Mac Jones and the offense. Keyword: slowly.
Even when the Patriots’ offense instantly went three-and-out after receiving the Bengals’ punt, something felt different. There seemed to be more juice and swagger than before. Was a Christmas miracle brewing in Gillette?
Patriots Get On The Board
After receiving the second Palardy punt of the half and trotting down the field, on third and eleven from the New England 32, Joe Burrow had a miscommunication with Ja’Marr Chase.
Instead of Chase running a ten-yard buttonhook, which Burrow expected him to do, Chase ran a go route. Marcus Jones happily caught Burrow’s throw and took it 69 yards to the house. The Patriots were finally on the board, and Marcus Jones was again responsible for points.
A missed extra point put the Patriots at a 22-6 deficit with 3:51 in the third quarter.
From there, the Bengals immediately got the ball back and went three and out. Some life was beginning to seep into the Patriots’ sidelines.
Head down and focused, the Patriots’ offense got to work, blocking out everything they could. They remained focused, poised, and confident in their abilities.
Mac Jones finally decided to figure things out, and it showed. After picking up a couple of first downs in the late-third and early-fourth quarter, Mac Jones dialed up an excellent deep ball to Kendrick Bourne in triple coverage. This placed the Patriots inside the Cincinnati ten and put them even closer to making the game one-score, which seemed impossible just an hour before.
On first and goal, Stevenson was given a handoff, where he winded up with a short gain, making it second and goal from the Cincinnati five.
Stevenson got the ball again but was stopped this time for no gain, putting the Patriots in another third-down situation, at risk of missing out on a major point opportunity.
Once again, however, New England defied all odds, and Mac Jones found Kendrick Bourne in the end zone. The Patriots were a two-point conversion away from making the game one score. The Bengals still held a comfortable 90% chance to win, but the anxiety was surely beginning to creep into the Bengals’ minds.
Sadly, the two-point conversion — a wobbly back-shoulder touch pass to Kendrick Bourne — failed, and New England would have to kick the ball back to Cincinnati down ten points.
On just eight plays, the Bengals cruised down into Patriots’ territory, almost scoring a game-sealing touchdown, but missed the opportunity to on an overthrown ball by Burrow on third down. The Patriots’ defense did their job once again and held the Bengals to a field goal… which was missed by Evan Macpherson. The Patriots would be getting the ball back with a chance to cut the deficit down to three.
Patriots Pull Off The Unthinkable
After a quick throw down the middle to Thornton for eight yards and a short pass to Kendrick Bourne for one yard, Mac Jones dropped back on third and one and threw a laser to Kendrick Bourne on the right side of the field.
The throw was ruled incomplete, but Belichick’s challenge (which occurred in an epic way and involved a sock) proved successful, and the Patriots finally had some rhythm.
What happened next is proof that Christmas miracles are alive and real.
Following the successful sock challenge from Bill Belichick, Mac Jones unsuccessfully turned to the screen game with Rhamondre Stevenson and lost a yard.
On second and 11, Jones was wrapped up nearly ten yards behind the line of scrimmage but cunningly tossed the ball underhand to the ground, resulting in an incompletion. Unfortunately, Jones’ throw was not in the vicinity of any receiver, and it landed behind the line of scrimmage, so intentional grounding was called. New England lost a down and thirteen yards on the penalty, so they found themselves staring at a third and 24 — which was then moved back to third and 29 after a false start by Trent Brown.
In desperation, Matt Patricia called a play similar to a Hail Mary, hoping for a miracle. It wasn’t technically the game’s last play, but it sure felt like it.
Taking the snap, Mac Jones instantly felt pressure. Luckily, he sneakily bought time by scrambling to the right side of the backfield, and he aired out a deep ball to Kendrick Bourne.
Jones’ deep ball wasn’t caught by Kendrick Bourne, however, instead finding its way into the arms of Jakobi Meyers off of a deflection. Gillette Stadium erupted, and New England was back in the game in what should have been a three-point deficit but instead was a four-point deficit after another miss by Nick Folk on the PAT.
Patriots Defense Comes Up Big
In the biggest possession of the game, the Bengals took over possession at their own 25 with a 79% chance to win the game and 5:56 left in the game.
The Bengals began the drive cool, calm, and collected, completing a seven-yard pass on first down and a five-yard pass on second down. On just two plays, the Bengals were creeping up on midfield and had a fresh set of downs. If they could find a rhythm and stick with it, they could end the game on this possession.
Burrow’s short pass to Mixon on first down went for five yards, and then a weak run from Mixon on second down went for two yards, leaving the Bengals with a third and three with 3:18 remaining in the game.
Zac Taylor had several options on his plate, but he elected to call a right-side screen to the shifty Ja’Marr Chase.
As soon as he caught the ball, Ja’Marr Chase was wrapped by two arms covered in red sleeves, which thereon knocked the ball out onto the turf. The bouncing ball barely had time to bounce, as rookie Marcus Jones immediately fell on it.
The Patriots had the ball in opponent territory with 3:12 left and a chance to win the game.
The Unthinkable Happens, Patriots Lose
Settling in for what was possibly the most important drive of his career, Mac Jones had one goal in mind: score a touchdown. A field goal wasn’t going to do it. He knew he was going to have to lead the offense to six.
After a defensive holding penalty on Tyquan Thornton that granted an automatic first down and moved the ball to the Cincinnati 31, Rhamondre Stevenson ran the ball up the gut for seven yards.
Stevenson, a sophomore running back out of Oklahoma, had been the cornerstone of the Patriots’ offense all season. Leading the way through backfield receiving and powerful rushing, Stevenson took control of games when Mac Jones couldn’t, becoming a fan-favorite along the way.
Even though Stevenson was struggling against Cincinnati, barely ammasing 25 yards through three quarters, fans and coaches knew that Stevenson could be trusted with the ball in important situations.
Keeping this in the back of his mind, Matt Patricia used the same play that defeated the Bills and called a screen to Marcus Jones- the cornerback- for a nice 15 yards. The Patriots were now at the Cincinnati 16.
New England had two minutes and three timeouts to travel 16 yards. They had all the tools to do it. It was going to come down to execution.
The Patriots began the sequence by handing the ball off to the trustworthy Rhamondre Stevenson, who took the pigskin seven yards to the Cincinnati nine.
Bengals timeout. 1:50 remaining.
New England called another handoff to Stevenson, who took it to the left side of the field for two yards, making it third and one. The ball was now at the Cincinnati seven.
Bengals timeout. 1:47 remaining.
The Patriots obviously trusted Rhamondre Stevenson. Two-straight redzone handoffs in the most important drive of the season are only given to the most disciplined and skilled players.
On third down, Mac Jones handed it off to — you guessed it — Rhamondre Stevenson, who plunged forward for two yards and the first down.
The Bengals, now out of timeouts, could do nothing to stop the clock. New England entirely controlled their fate. With all three timeouts intact, they could dictate the flow of the game to their liking.
In the shotgun, Mac Jones lined up with Stevenson to his left.
Stevenson had worked so hard to get to this position. He had shown significant grit and perseverance to take the Patriots’ offense out of a sixty-foot hole earlier in the season. Now, in Week 16, he was on the brink of having his hard work pay off, hoping to become the hero and put New England one step closer to completing an improbable comeback and potentially making an even more improbable appearance in the playoffs.
But, as I said in the article’s first sentence, football is a sport that can change momentum in an instant.
After taking the handoff, several Bengals linemen met Rhamondre Stevenson at the line of scrimmage. The sheer force brought by the lineman forced Stevenson to lower his body in an awkward position, which then exposed the football.
The ball was ripped out, fumbled, and recovered by the Bengals.
The snap before the fumble, the Patriots had a 66% chance to win the game. The snap after the fumble, the Patriots had a 7% chance to win the game.
New England would go on to lose the game 22-18 in a heartbreaking fashion, and all of Stevenson’s hard work and momentum that had brought him to this moment was erased.
New England’s hopes at a playoff appearence may be unlikely, but fans should not give up yet. If this game against the Bengals is any indication, New England is good at bouncing back from deficits.
The Patriots will face the Dolphins on Sunday next week, and then close out the regular season against the Bills the week after that.
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