After defeating the Arizona Cardinals last week on Monday Night Football, the New England Patriots stayed out west to take on the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday.
New England came back from a 17-3 halftime deficit to score 21 unanswered points and take a seven-point lead late in the fourth quarter, only to let the Raiders tie the game with under a minute remaining. The Patriots then executed maybe the most poorly-timed (and poorly-conducted) lateral play in NFL history, with wide receiver Jakobi Meyers throwing the ball backwards into the waiting arms of Raiders defensive end Chandler Jones, who ran 48 yards the other way to give Las Vegas the game-winning score as time expired.
Here are three big takeaways from the game.
1. What in the world was that offensive playcalling
It has been no secret that a culprit of New England’s offensive ineptitude this season has been their offensive playcalling. While second-year quarterback Mac Jones did start the season off looking far less composed than he did at the end of last year, he has not been the direct reason for the Patriots’ inability to have a consistently good offense this season.
Matt Patricia, the longtime defensive coach now hired back to call plays on the offensive side of the ball, has had a rough first season in his role. The playcalling just has not been good for this offense to be in any way consistent, and Sunday’s game was a great example of that fact.
The Patriots got the ball at midfield to begin the fourth quarter, their best starting field position of the game up to that point. Still down by four points, they needed a touchdown to truly get themselves back in the game.
Patricia responded to this need by first calling a run up the middle, but that was stuffed for no gain. He then called a screen pass on 2nd and 10 which went for three yards. On third down, he finally called a mid-range pass, but Jones had to scramble out of the pocket and slide short of the first down.
This sort of playcalling is what made up New England’s offensive attack for most of the game, and Jones put up an incredibly mediocre 13/31, 112-yard stat line as a result. 39 of those 112 yards came on one deep ball to Meyers; without it, Jones’ average yards per pass on the day would drop from a paltry 3.6 to a miserable 2.4.
Clearly, something needs to change in New England’s offensive scheming in order for them to play more competent football. The question remains, however, as to whether that change will happen sooner or later.
2. Running game looked great
New England’s offensive line has looked very hit-or-miss at many points throughout the season, but on Sunday, it looked dominant, and especially so in the running game.
The Patriots had their way with Las Vegas’ defensive line all game long, and running back Rhamondre Stevenson took advantage of the opportunity. While he was limited in practice throughout the week with an ankle injury, Stevenson looked every bit his usual self on Sunday and was able to provide the vast majority of New England’s offensive attack all by himself.
Stevenson rushed for 172 yards on 19 carries, averaging an impressive 9.1 yards per rush, including this 34-yard go-ahead touchdown late in the 4th quarter.
Rhamondre Stevenson gifts fantasy managers with a touchdown! 🎁
— NBC Sports EDGE Football (@NBCSEdgeFB) December 18, 2022
When Stevenson was not on the field (which did occasionally happen), rookie backs Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris were able to press onward in his stead. Strong finished with 25 yards on four rushes, and Harris finished with 19 yards on five carries.
Stevenson has quickly become a focal point of this Patriots’ offense and possesses a mix of size, speed, and balance that draws comparisons to Marshawn Lynch, among others. However, without Stevenson, this offense would quickly fall apart (more so than already).
3. Special teams, what is going on?
For a long time, the Patriots have prided themselves on outperforming their opponents in certain facets of the game. One of those core facets is good special teams play and using it to pin their opponents back and force mistakes.
This season, however, New England’s special teams have been mediocre to downright horrible. From things as small as routine penalties to more significant concerns like giving up a kick return touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings, this special teams unit has looked out of sorts for most of the season.
It has not helped the unit that punter Jake Bailey has been out for over a month with a back injury, but even when Bailey was healthy earlier in the season, he still had a few games where he just looked off.
The lackluster special teams play reared its head again on Sunday. As the Patriots were getting ready to punt the ball on a 4th and 6 late in the first half, long snapper Joe Cardona snapped the ball before anyone in the protection unit was ready, allowing the Raiders to easily block the punt and setting them up in great field position to score again before halftime.
Miscommunication on the Patriots’ blocked punt. Most of the punt team wasn’t ready when Joe Cardona snapped it. pic.twitter.com/LvQHoJM1Cj
— Zack Cox (@ZackCoxNESN) December 18, 2022
The Raiders would then score a touchdown just a few plays after the block.
While there seem to be lapses in coaching all over this Patriots team this season (with the exception of maybe the defense), special teams is an area where New England traditionally exposes their opponents’ flaws, not the other way around.
Like many other areas of the team (looking at you, offense), this is a spot where the Patriots just can’t afford to be bad right now. However, it may be just too late in the season for any significant changes to be made quickly enough to turn the tide of this team’s playoff chances.