FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — For the second straight week, the fate of the New England Patriots was sealed on a late-game mistake.
Entering a crucial three-game stretch with little margin for error, the Patriots saw their playoff hopes pushed further in the wrong direction when Rhamondre Stevenson fumbled the ball at the worst possible moment, essentially sealing a 22-18 defeat to Cincinnati. One of the team’s top performers this season, Stevenson lost the ball with New England trailing by four and facing first-and-goal from the Cincinnati 5-yard line with 1:05 remaining.
Stevenson was in the middle of another maddening error last week: he made the first of two ill-conceived pitches on the final play of what was a tied game — until the Las Vegas Raiders picked off the second lateral and ran it in for the winning touchdown.
The Patriots didn’t give their fans much to cheer about through three quarters Saturday but managed to threaten the defending AFC champs. The mistake by Stevenson deep in Bengals’ territory ended a comeback bid on what was a bone-chilling Christmas Eve that began with New England trailing 22-0 at halftime.
“Was trying to make something happen. Probably doing more than what I was supposed to do. Probably should’ve gone down, but I was fighting for extra yards,” Stevenson said.
“We should have responded earlier. One play doesn’t win a game, one play doesn’t lose a game. A lot of things happen throughout the game,” Patriots captain Deatrich Wise Jr. said.
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and his teammates appeared on their way to registering their seventh straight win without breaking a sweat on a 17-degree day at kickoff. Mac Jones and the New England offense didn’t cross midfield until the third quarter after ending the first half with 17 offensive snaps total.
Multiple times during the team’s lackluster first half, frustrated Patriots fans voiced what they wanted for Christmas — for Bill Belichick to insert rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe for Jones, who was 5 of 8 for 34 yards entering the second half.
“No one probably believed we would be able to come back from 22 points, but we fought and were right there ready to score,” Jones said.
The road to an exciting finish started on the defensive side of the ball. Marcus Jones added to his banner rookie campaign with an interception that he returned 69 yards for his third score of the season.
Jones also had 14 tackles, recovered a fumble and caught a 15-yard pass.
“Marcus is always in the right spot at the right time, and he always makes the plays. I don’t think you can ask more from a guy, but every week we do and he delivers,” linebacker Matt Judon said.
Kendrick Bourne and the offense showed some resilience, with the wide receiver enjoying his most productive game of the season (six catches on nine targets, 100 yards). He caught one of two touchdown passes thrown by Mac Jones — a 5-yarder that cut Cincinnati’s lead to 22-12 with 13:06 left.
“Not the outcome we wanted, but love the fight in all our guys,” Bourne said.
Normally reliable Nick Folk missed two extra points, and the Patriots missed a two-point try. Penalties were once again an issue, with New England flagged 10 times for 82 yards.
“As an offense, we just have to do a better job of closing out the game,” Patriots captain David Andrews said.
Now one game below .500, the Patriots entered the week one game out of a playoff spot. Losses by the Jets and Titans kept the situation from getting worse, with games against division rivals Miami and Buffalo remaining.
Nonetheless, the beat goes on for a NFL team that was once again dealt a tough-to-swallow result.
“Wish we could have finished. We had a great opportunity,” Bourne said.