Mac Jones played quite well in the fourth quarter. He almost brought the New England Patriots back. He's growing.
But he is also still a rookie. And the Patriots still don't want to put him in a position in which he has to do too much. That's not their formula to win. That's why the Indianapolis Colts got a big 27-17 win Saturday night to improve to 8-6.
The Patriots fell behind quickly against a Colts team that is catching its stride, and for three quarters Jones looked like a rookie trying to lead Indianapolis back. He threw a bad red-zone interception to Darius Leonard. He threw another in which Colts linebacker Bobby Okereke made a diving catch. Jones had a bad misfire on a fourth-and-1 in the third quarter. The Patriots didn't score in the first three quarters. Jones and the Patriots made a run in the fourth quarter — it was a great rally and says a lot about Jones to bounce back from some adversity — but it was too late. Jonathan Taylor put the Patriots away with a 67-yard run with 2:01 left that will be at the top of his NFL Offensive Player of the Year resume.
There's no shame in losing to the Colts on the road. Plenty of Super Bowl teams have had a tough loss late in the season. But the Patriots don't want to play games like they had to Saturday night. That's life with a rookie quarterback.
Colts get off to a great start
The Patriots had won seven in a row. They are a very good team, led by a fantastic defense and an offense that generally does enough.
Yet, Saturday night's loss could be damaging. The Chiefs take over as the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Titans can improve to 10-4 on Sunday and tie the Chiefs for the top spot. The Patriots will be at least a game back with three to play.
Saturday night was the kind of game the Patriots would never script. The Colts scored first on a nifty play to running back Nyheim Hines. Then came the play that changed the game flow for New England. The Patriots were slow to get off a punt, and it was blocked and recovered in the end zone for a Colts touchdown. That gave Indianapolis a 14-0 lead. The team that famously won a game at Buffalo throwing just three times had to open it up. The Colts, with the NFL's leading rusher in Taylor, could slow the game way down and not ask Carson Wentz to do much. Wentz had just four completions for 38 yards going into the fourth quarter. The Colts had a moment of clarity in the game too, when Wentz threw an awful interception in the fourth quarter that opened the door for a Patriots comeback. They don't want their quarterback throwing too often.
New England couldn't fully take advantage after that turnover. Jones had a nice fourth-down conversion on the following drive, but also missed a shot at a big play on a flea-flicker. New England couldn't punch it in and settled for a field goal and a 20-10 deficit with 8:57 left. The Colts bled some clock after that. New England got the ball back with a few minutes left and Jones hit a long pass to N'Keal Harry to set up Hunter Henry's second touchdown. That pulled New England to 20-17. But Taylor broke the game-clinching run just before the two-minute warning.
One loss doesn't unravel everything the Patriots did during a seven-game winning streak. It just showed the kind of game they, and Jones, don't want to get themselves into come January.
Big win for Indianapolis
The Colts likely aren't going to win the AFC South. They came into Week 15 trailing the Titans by two games, and Tennessee has the tiebreaker.
Yet Saturday gave life to the idea that the Colts can make a deep run as a wild-card team.
The old notion that running the ball and playing defense is the best path to a championship may be outdated, but it can work. And that's what the Colts do best. They are a well-coached team on both sides with a superstar back in Taylor running behind a fantastic offensive line. The Chiefs, for an example, are a better team than the Colts, but Indianapolis can make it difficult by getting Taylor going, dominating time of possession, playing good defense and shortening the game. They'd match up well against anyone for those reasons.
The AFC isn't that intimidating. All seven playoff teams have hope they can make it to a Super Bowl, mostly because there's no team in the conference that feels unbeatable.
Both teams learned a bit about themselves. The Colts know, after beating New England, they can compete with anyone. And the Patriots know what kind of game they don't want to play next month.