Late interception dooms Patriots in 20-17 loss to Commanders. Team's 2-7 start is worst since 2000

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Mac Jones appeared to have put his earlier struggles behind when he moved the Patriots into Washington territory with under 2 minutes to play. A game-tying field goal was in sight and the go-ahead touchdown remained a possibility, too.

On second-and-8 from the Commanders 41, Jones dropped back in the pocket and threw down the middle to JuJu Smith-Schuster. The ball bounced off the receiver’s hands and into the arms of Jartavius Martin, sealing Washington's 20-17 victory.

“I feel like I’ve been saying it every week,” Patriots tight end Hunter Henry said. “We’ve had too many of those this year, and another one today.”

The Patriots fell to 2-7 for the first time since Bill Belichick’s first season as their head coach and lost to the Commanders (4-5) at home for the first time since 1996. Belichick remains 17 victories short of breaking Don Shula's all-time wins record, and now there is reason to doubt he will last long enough in New England to do it.

Sunday's loss came at the hands of a team that had already given up on this season, trading away its two top pass rushers last week. The rest of the season is a referendum on quarterback Sam Howell, a fifth-round pick in 2022; coach Ron Rivera is not expected to return.

Asked if this loss stung more because the other team was “tanking,” Patriots center David Andrews said, “It stings because it’s a loss.”

“It’s not going to break my spirit,” he said. “It’s not going to break our spirit.”

Such turmoil may be expected in Washington, a franchise that has gone through eight coaches and three nicknames since it last won a game in New England.

But Belichick's lack of success since Tom Brady left in 2020 has Patriots fans wondering if he will last the season. And after Jones showed promise in his rookie year, the next two have not shown the progress that would give the team faith he is the answer.

“I think the biggest thing ... is remaining confident in yourself,” Jones said. “When you do everything you can every day, you should have no regrets. I have no regrets. I do need to do things better, but I’m always going to work hard and put in the hours. That’s all I can do, right? ”

Belichick didn’t even try to answer questions about the team’s struggles after the game, mumbling the same platitudes about how “all three units” need improvement. Every decision he made was because he thought it gave them the best chance to win.

“We had our chances. You know, had a chance there at the end,” he said. “Couldn’t make enough plays.”

Defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. conceded that the routine is getting repetitive.

“We continue to say the same things,” he said. “Our spirits aren’t broken just because we have a loss.”

Jones completed 24 of 44 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown, a well-thrown 14-yarder to Henry that gave the Patriots a 14-10 lead in the second quarter. Rhamondre Stevenson broke free for a 64-yard touchdown run that was the longest Patriots play from scrimmage this season.

But New England also hurt itself with mental mistakes, most notably defensive lineman Mack Wilson lining up offside on a punt by Washington. The penalty gave the Commanders the ball back; although they didn’t advance, they forced New England to burn off its last two timeouts before getting the ball back with 2:07 to play.

Jones seemed to be moving the Patriots into position for at least a tying score, advancing to the Washington 43-yard line. Instead, the interception sealed the loss.

“It’s all on me,” Smith-Schuster said. “He put the ball in a good position. I’ve just got to make the catch, secure it. Now, we’re in field goal range. Obviously, I didn’t do that. Fell short.”

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL