Las Vegas, NV – The Patriots comeback bid fell short for the second-straight season in the desert in a 21-17 loss to the Raiders at Allegiant Stadium on Sunday.
For the silver linings club, the Patriots were more competitive in a game that didn't spiral out of control like the last two weeks, and the offense snapped a 39-drive touchdown-less streak. Still, it's not good enough in every area for this team to get back on track, let alone find sustained success to turn their season around. Finding creative ways to say the same things about this team is getting harder. As the head coach said in his opening statement following the game, there were more opportunities to make plays this week, and you can't compare this loss to the blowout losses the last two weeks. But you get the sense that this team is always swimming against the current.
Although the effort was there till the end, nothing came easy enough for this group to win a football game, especially on offense where every yard feels like a slog from the quarterback on down. Penalties (10) and costly turnovers in scoring range are death blows, the defense needs momentum-swinging takeaways rather than simply holding serve, and all three phases have zero margin for error to overcome any adversity throughout the game.
As the old saying goes, the Patriots are what their record says they are at 1-5 for the first time since 1995, pre-Belichick, in Bill Parcells's third year as the team's head coach, and that record feels accurate for the product we see on the field every week. Not every game will be a one-sided blowout, and they might find a few wins along the way. Ultimately, though, until they show us otherwise, this is not a good football team in New England.
Here are eight game observations as the Patriots dropped to 1-5 in Las Vegas on Sunday:
1. Powerful Play of the Game Presented by Enel: Jabrill Peppers Obliterates Devante Adams to Force First-Quarter Interception by Jahlani Tavai
The Patriots desperately needed a spark with the Raiders in control of the first quarter. Vegas was driving again into the red zone, looking to increase the lead to a two-score deficit, but Patriots safety Jabrill Peppers had other ideas.
With the defense hyper-focused on superstar receiver Devante Adams, Peppers anticipated an in-breaking route to Adams as a staple play for the Raiders with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback. Peppers read Jimmy G's eyes to the ball and laid a stick on Adams that would make even the guys who played before the league began legislating big hits out of the game proud.
"Just something that we worked on all week. We know he is a go-to guy down there. Got a good break on the ball and just tried to get my head out of there so I don't get fined again. I was able to get the ball out, that was really it," Peppers told Patriots.com. "We had a couple of long drives but we were able to hold them to field goals. We have to be better early on, on early downs, but it's a good sign when you keep them out of the end zone."
Peppers's teammates call his physicality and energy contagious, while his efforts on several occasions were huge in the Pats defense holding Vegas to 1-for-6 in the red zone, which kept the game close in the end.
The Patriots need the rest of the team to follow Peppers's lead because the Pats safety is playing with a competitive fire that isn't reflective of a 1-5 team.
2. Patriots QB Mac Jones's Issues WIth Decision-Making, Field Vision Continue
Like the team around him, Patriots quarterback Mac Jones didn't self-destruct for a third consecutive week, but this still was far from good enough to win consistently at this level.
Based on my live viewing, Jones looked more poised in the pocket and dropped a dime to DeVante Parker on the final offensive drive that was a clear drop. There were also two sacks that combined little separation and mismatches on the line that didn't feel like it was on the quarterback, including the game-ending safety by Maxx Crosby. Same story, different week, with a supporting cast that, outside of Kendrick Bourne, let the quarterback down, especially Parker who had a bad drop and a shaky route that on a failed third down where a play was there to be made.
Still, after a lopsided loss to the Cowboys a few weeks ago, Jones told reporters that he needed to focus on "staying within the frame" of the offense. In other words, don't try to do too much improvising. On Sunday, Jones became a repeat offender when he made another crossbody throw on the move back into the middle of the field, which he sailed well wide of tight end Hunter Henry for his seventh interception of the season.
If you think an NFL starting quarterback should be able to make that throw, I won't argue with you. Could he have quickly reset his feet to get more control of the ball? I'll allow that critique as well. However, Mac isn't playing within himself by throwing back into the field while on the run. The best thing for the Patriots quarterback to do there is throw the ball away and play out 3rd-and-5. The worst-case scenario is a field goal attempt, and the best case is they convert on third down. The very worst case is Mac throwing an ugly pick working off-script.
Jones didn't allow an ugly turnover to ruin his day, but it felt like he was locked into receivers at times while reading the field, mainly on a near-INT where he was lucky that Ty Montgomery ended up with the ball where it looked like TE Mike Gesicki was the right read on a skinny post and a third-down incompletion to Hunter Henry where Bourne was the more open receiver on an in-cut.
The Patriots quarterback was more competitive overall, but there are still too many plays he's leaving on the field for an offense that doesn't have a margin for error.
3. Malik Mania: Patriots Undrafted Rookie's Debut Doesn't Live Up to Over-Hyped Storyline
For everyone who follows this team, the Patriots signing Malik Cunningham to the 53-man roster was a potentially fun storyline for a team that needed a spark. The bottom line is, and I'll take responsibility for this too, it was way over-hyped. The undrafted rookie was on the field as a decoy for Zeke Elliott's first touchdown run, but it looked like he incorrectly read a read-option scheme in the fourth quarter that led to a five-yard TFL for Amik Robertson. There may be something that the coaches are seeing in practice that'll eventually translate to games, but it turned out to be much ado about nothing. Even Belichick downplayed it after the game when he said Cunningham is on the roster due to injuries elsewhere on the team.
4. Patriots Find Some Run-Game Success, But Maxx Crosby Gets the Last Laugh
New England had to roll out its fifth offensive line combination in six games down essentially three starters (Reiff, Strange, Onwenu), with Onwenu only available on an emergency basis. That left the Pats with, from left to right: Brown, Mafi, Andrews, Sow, and Lowe on Sunday.
The one area that felt beatable with this Raiders team, even for a struggling Patriots offense, was the Vegas run defense against Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott. Although we'll need to review the film, the Patriots had a 65% success rate on the ground. Many conventional runs appeared to be a mix of inside zone and trap schemes, while offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien did a nice job incorporating more jet motion in this game. The Pats established the threat with jet sweeps to Elliott and Kendrick Bourne, which set up a few plays off the motion, including a third-down conversion for Stevenson on a toss.
However, the pass protection broke down when the Patriots needed it to clinch the game for the Raiders on a play where the quarterback admittedly held the ball for a while in the pocket. Jones couldn't find anywhere to go with the ball, and Crosby beat Vederian Lowe off the edge for a safety in a matchup that you knew would eventually hurt the Pats. I'd lean toward that sack being a combination of good coverage and Crosby being a huge mismatch over Lowe. Either way, LG Atonio Mafi (hold, sack) and Lowe (sack, blown run block) were again weak links.
The Patriots don't have the health and, as a result, talent to build something solid up front offensively.
5. Former OC Josh McDaniels Takes Down Patriots Coverage System With Familiar Passing Script
After facing Belichick's defense for a decade in practice, it's not surprising that McDaniels had a great plan against the Patriots pass defense.
McDaniels attacked outside leveraged corners with crossing routes and double in-breaking concepts that presented clear reads for the quarterbacks and put single-high help defenders in conflict between the numbers. For example, old friend Jakobi Meyers's touchdown came on a double post concept where Myles Bryant was in a tough spot to stick with Meyers as he broke inside.
The Raiders longest play from scrimmage also came on a coverage beater by McDaniels. With the former Pats OC expecting Belichick to double Devante Adams and Meyers, McDaniels sent speedy receiver Tre Tucker on a vertical route. As anticipated, the safeties helped to Adams and Meyers, leaving Jonathan Jones on an island with Tucker, and the rookie wideout made the catch.
Ultimately, McDaniels knows the Patriots defense as well as any offensive play-caller in the NFL, so you knew he'd have some things ready. Whether it was Garoppolo or Hoyer, Vegas generated +0.29 expected points added on their drop-backs while averaging over eight yards per attempt. Don't let the final score and red zone defense fool you; the Raiders moved the ball relatively easily through the air on Sunday.
6. WR Tyquan Thornton Logs One Catch in Season Debut
Another season debut that fizzled quickly for the second-year receiver, who had one catch for six yards. Thornton drew a hold to move the chain on third down but couldn't separate on a vertical shot and wasn't often used as a schemed touch threat by O'Brien. Assuming he can practice more than in a limited capacity moving forward, maybe they will design more ways to get Thornton the ball in space. Still, Thornton doesn't appear to have the route-running skill to separate consistently on his own.
7. Patriots DT Christian Barmore, LB Ja'Whaun Bentley, LB Anfernee Jennings Stand Out in Live Viewing
We'll log the exact impactful plays in After Further Review, but this trio and Peppers were a huge part of holding the Raiders to 2.5 yards per rush and made several big plays. Barmore's big stuff on third down got the ball back to the Pats offense late in the fourth quarter, Jennings made six tackles with a TFL, and Bentley continues to be a bright spot for this team with four tackles and two QB hits as an effective blitzer. Barmore's all-around play with two batted passes, a TFL/stuff, and a drawn hold was great.
8. Special Teams Continue to be Up and Down for the Patriots
The good news was that rookie kicker Chad Ryland saw one go through with a 43-yard field, and two made extra points, while punter Bryce Baringer recovered after a shaky 35-yard punt to hit two better ones later in the game. Second-year DT Sam Roberts's penalty for leveraging was nearly costly, but the defense held to force another field goal — a mixed bag for a unit riding the wave with two rookies right now.