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By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — Football — real, live, American football — returned to New England on Sunday. Some 68,000 fans filled the seats for the first time in 20 months. The pageantry of a flyover boomed over the stadium. High-profile rookie Mac Jones embarked on what Patriots fans hope will be a long, successful career. Bill Belichick returned for season number 22 with the team.
The day had all the makings of a dramatic, celebratory afternoon and early evening in Foxboro. And for the bulk of the game, it was all going as planned.
Jones made some dazzling throws and few mistakes. The scoring went back and forth. The defense provided the apex of emotion by forcing a turnover in the fourth quarter, drawing the crowd into a state of delirium.
Trailing by a point, the offense marched deep into Miami territory, poised to either kick a chip-shot field goal or find the end zone to take a lead. From there, the defense would be asked to hold.
An otherwise forgettable handoff to Damien Harris went for a few yards off the right side. A second down play inside the 10-yard line seemed to be forthcoming.
But then, in an instant, it all went away. The ball was ripped loose. Harris fumbled. Miami recovered.
The opportunity for that dramatic finish disappeared. And the highest high of emotion from the fans in attendance instantly sunk to the lowest low of the day.
Huge takeaway by the @MiamiDolphins defense.
Miami takes over up one with 3:31 to go. #FinsUp
— NFL (@NFL) September 12, 2021
Everything that happened prior to the fumble — good, bad, otherwise — all kind of went … poof.
“Yeah, it’s not good enough. Got to take care of the ball better,” Belichick said at the postgame podium. “Ball security, penalties, too many little missed things, situational football. Just all of it.”
Before the fumble, Harris had an excellent day. After the fumble, though, that didn’t matter a whole lot.
“I mean, at the end of the day, we lost the game,” Harris said. “And that’s what’s most important for me, as it’s most important for this team. We just have to be better. There were a lot of tough situations that came up. Obviously the fumble at the end of the game was the one of the hardest ones to overcome. But it’s part of the game.
Cornerback J.C Jackson summed up the swings of emotions — from the late interception, to the Harris fumble, to the defense’s ability to force a Miami punt — in succinct fashion.
“I mean, it’s part of football, man,” Jackson said. “[Stuff] happens like that.”
Instead of a triumphant story about how Mac Jones overcame a shaky start to steadily build confidence while delivering some eye-popping passes, instead of a story of Patriots fans witnessing a long-awaited home victory, we’re left with this: a fumble. A loss. An 0-1 start to the season.
It’s hard to look at it any other way.
As you might imagine, the postgame commentary from within the walls of the stadium didn’t offer too much in the way of colorful analysis. Belichick said the team needs to play better, and the coaches need to coach better. Harris noted that he can’t be fumbling, but that he won’t let that mistake define him. Nelson Agholor (a tremendous Patriots debut), Jonathan Jones (the recipient of that pinballed Tua Tagovailoa interception), and J.C. Jackson (a solid day in the No. 1 corner role) touched on the positives while lamenting the overwhelming negatives — the main one, of course, being the final score of the game.
Outside the walls, though, there probably should be some more positive feelings. Jones showed that while he didn’t make every correct read on every single play, he’s certainly got an NFL arm. And his fortitude to overcome a dreadful backward spike/fumble/near-turnover on his first NFL pass attempt showed that he’s got a certain level of resolve. From there, he sensed pressure, escaped the pocket when needed, and delivered some darts all over the field.
— NFL (@NFL) September 12, 2021
Hunter Henry’s first reception as a Patriot pic.twitter.com/8Hoxq2wFDE
— Ben Brown (@BenBrownPL) September 12, 2021
— Pats Buzz (@PatsBuzz) September 12, 2021
Jones also showed something a little more than that, too. After the Harris fumble, Jones could be seen getting rowdy on the sideline, imploring the defense to get the ball right back.
The defense ultimately couldn’t do that, but Jones — in his first NFL game — having the confidence and conviction to speak to that veteran-laced unit in that spot shows that he’s willing and able to be the leader that a quarterback generally needs to be.
“I think being the quarterback, I need to do a better job, demanding better in practice. Sometimes I just let things slide, myself included. That’s not good enough. So I’m going to try and be more vocal, and I am a vocal person, but it’s kind of a new situation, and I can be better. But it starts with me,” Jones said. “The defense, I try and hype them up and stuff, and they played great. We’ve got to do better on offense. So we’ll do that.”
Jones also showed a Patriot-like perspective when asked about his refusal to accept the football after he threw his first NFL touchdown. The rookie seems to be more interested in getting a game ball after a victory than after a touchdown.
“Because it doesn’t really matter. It was one touchdown. We’ve got to score more,” Jones said when asked why he didn’t want the ball as a keepsake. “It’s not like the game was over right there. We’ve got to do better in the red zone and get more touchdowns, and we will.”
In that sense, in a championship-driven organization like this one, a moral victory in a one-point loss to a divisional foe can’t be claimed. A loss is a loss, and the standings show that the Patriots are 0-1. There’s no doubt about that.
Yet if you’re looking at this team and what it will be capable of as the season moves along, you’d be lying to yourself if you didn’t admit that — ghastly fumbles and avalanche of penalties aside — there’s more to feel good about than bad about in the totality of the 60-minute show from Sunday.
The positives won’t erase that loss, no. But they indicate that there surely will be some more wins down the road.
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