The Raiders have the edge in talent and familiarity, but does that mean they’ll beat the Patriots?
If the Patriots can overcome this, it would be their most impressive win of the season.
Welcome to Season 11, Episode 14 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup …
It’s a reflection on the quality of the Patriots’ seven victories that a win over Josh McDaniels and his Raiders Sunday afternoon would likely rate as their most impressive of the season, depending somewhat upon the final margin and the aesthetics.
That’s not to suggest the Raiders are a particular good football team. They’re 5-8, and even though six of their losses have come by 6 points or fewer and two — including last week’s 17-16 Thursday night embarrassment to walk-on quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Rams — have come by a point, their minus-5 point differential tells a true tale of their mediocrity.
The Raiders have a couple of significant advantages in yet another must-win for the Patriots as they cling to the edge of the playoff race. First: extensive familiarity with the workings of the opponent. McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler were with the Patriots last season. They have inside insight on so much — Mac Jones’s preferences and weaknesses, the core principles of Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick’s defensive schemes, Bill Belichick’s blunt feelings on dozens of players on the roster, and on and on.
The Raiders also have 12 ex-Patriots on their depth chart, and several coaches, including offensive coordinator Mick Lombardi and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, who once received paychecks signed by Robert Kraft. Sure, Bill Belichick knows McDaniels’s tendencies well, but the Raiders have a couple of dozen people with institutional knowledge of the Patriots. That’s a huge edge.
Their second huge edge: talent at the skill positions. Derek Carr, who has thrown for 3,117 yards and 20 touchdowns, is a slightly-above-average NFL starter. But he has a receiver to envy in college teammate Davante Adams, who has 82 catches on 142 targets for 1,247 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first season in Las Vegas. Tight end Darren Waller and receiver Hunter Renfrow (not the one given away for Sea Dogs depth by Chaim Bloom) are expected to be back from injuries this week. And Josh Jacobs has been the most prolific running back in the league this season.
The Patriots have nowhere near the Raiders’ offensive talent, and their most reliable skill players have been taking their lumps. Running back Rhamondre Stevenson is dealing with an ankle injury that kept him out of practice through Thursday, and receiver DeVante Parker also was absent from practice after suffering a concussion Monday night that the officials will notice at any moment now. And reliable Jakobi Meyers missed the Cardinals game with a concussion.
This one is a mismatch in pure I-have-that-guy-on-my-fantasy-football-team talent. But that’s why they play the games, right?
Kick it off, Folk, and let’s get this thing started …
Three players to watch other than the quarterbacks
Josh Jacobs: Think Ziegler regrets not picking up Jacobs’s fifth-year option? Ziegler, the Raiders’ first-year general manager, sent a message (namely that predecessor Mike Mayock and former coach Jon Gruden drafted like they didn’t have access to game film) by deciding in April not to exercise the option on all three of the Raiders’ 2019 first-round picks — Jacobs, safety Johnathan Abram, and defensive end Clelin Farrell.
Abram was cut in late December and picked up by the Seahawks, while Farrell has one sack — or more precisely, a half-sack each in two games. But Jacobs has been extraordinary, and he’s acknowledged that the front office’s decision has fueled him. He leads the NFL in rushing yardage (1,402, on 269 attempts) and yards from scrimmage (1,748, which includes 346 yards on 44 receptions). He has been the definition of a workhorse, averaging 27.5 carries and 145.3 yards over the past four games. In a 40-34 win over the Seahawks in Week 12, he racked up 301 yards from scrimmage, including 229 on 33 carries.
The Patriots’ 12th-ranked run defense has had some success in shutting down top backs (recent example: the Vikings’ Dalvin Cook was held to 42 yards on 22 attempts in Week 12), and it could have defensive tackle Christian Barmore back to bolster the cause for the first time since mid-October, but Jacobs is too versatile to be contained completely.
One other thought inspired by the Raiders’ runner: There can’t be many quarterbacks in league history that have had fewer talented offensive teammates in the NFL than they did in college, but Jones is one. Jones was the third-string quarterback for Alabama’s 2018 national championship team, behind Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa. The Crimson Tide’s offensive depth chart included Jacobs, Damien Harris, and Najee Harris at running back, and receivers DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, and Jerry Jeudy. Wonder if this ever crosses Jones’s mind when Matt Patricia does something like calling for a screen pass to Jonnu Smith on third and 11.
Josh Uche: If not for Marcus Jones’s role as an electrifying playmaker in all three phases, Uche’s emergence into a habitual tormentor of quarterbacks might be the most exciting current story line for the Patriots.
Uche has 10 sacks, all in the past six games, including his second three-sack game in the win over the Cardinals, earning him AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. His must-be-accounted-for presence has taken some of the burden off Matthew Judon, who leads the NFL in sacks with 14.5 and has reveled in Uche’s development.
The next step, and one Uche seems to be making considering he played a career-high 64 percent of the defensive snaps against the Cardinals, is to prove he’s a trustworthy three-down player rather than a pass-rush specialist. Until Monday, he hadn’t played more than 43 percent of the snaps in any game this season, and when he had three sacks against the Colts in Week 9, he played just 25 total snaps.
Carr has been difficult to get to, having been sacked just 21 times (tied for 24th in the NFL) while attempting 434 passes (ninth), so Uche and Judon will have their work cut out for them.
Maxx Crosby: In our discussion of impressive pass rushers, we’ve come to the Raiders portion of the program. Old friend Chandler Jones has only recently awakened in his first season with the Raiders, collecting 9 tackles, 7 quarterback hits, and 4 sacks in their last two games after tallying just a half-sack (in a Week 7 win over Houston) through Week 12.
But the Raiders’ real threat to fold, spindle, and mutilate Mac Jones any opportunity he gets is the relentless Crosby, who has a career-high 11.5 sacks, leads the NFL with 19 tackles for loss, and has played at least 90 percent of the defensive snaps in every game.
The Patriots got a look at Crosby during the teams’ joint practices in August, and his refusal to skip a single snap during drills drew much admiration. Former Patriots tackle Jermaine Eluemunor, now with the Raiders, said earlier this season that practicing against the dedicated Crosby every day made him change how he approached his own preparation.
With Isaiah Wynn expected to miss his fourth straight game with a foot injury and backup Yodny Cajuste dealing with a calf injury, Jets practice squad refugee Conor McDermott could find himself with the unenviable task of lining up opposite Crosby, snap after snap after snap.
Grievance of the week
The retrospectives this week on McDaniels’s coaching stints with the Patriots (2001-08, and 2012-21, with 14 seasons spent as offensive coordinator) as well as his own reminiscences on what working with Bill Belichick meant to him (”I wouldn’t be standing here if not for him,” McDaniels said this past week) have served as one more reminder of how absurd it is that Belichick decided to replace him in essence with Patricia.
Sure, we had occasional gripes about McDaniels — I cannot wait until his first third-and-8 draw play to Brandon Bolden on Sunday — but generally speaking he was a clever, flexible coordinator who knew how to identify and expose the flaws of the defense. I still admire, for example, how he altered the Patriots’ offense on the fly during the 2018 season and turned it into a power-running outfit that averaged 161.6 yards per game in its three postseason victories.
What’s the best thing that can be said about Patricia, this minimizer of talent, as a coordinator? That he dials up a mean screen pass every third time he calls one? Honestly, I’m not sure anymore that the dropoff from Tom Brady to Cam Newton at quarterback in 2020 was as steep as this McDaniels-to-Patricia freefall.
Prediction, or the Raiders belong in Oakland, the Chargers belong in San Diego, and that’s that
In summary: The Raiders: Not that good. But they’re talented, and they intimately know who they’re facing. If the Patriots can overcome this, yep, it would be their most impressive win of the season.
So, how can they do it? Depending on Stevenson’s status, the Patriots may end up requiring productive performances from rookie running backs Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris — who combined for 96 yards and two touchdowns (one apiece) against the Cardinals — as well as furloughed Patricia doghouse residents Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor. Involving Hunter Henry, who had 30- and 39-yard catches against the Cardinals, is usually wise, too.
And what they will absolutely need is a second straight spectacular performance from their fifth-ranked defense (18.4 points per game), which collected six sacks and two turnovers against the Cardinals. I’m skeptical, though, given their struggles with the elite pass-catching likes of Justin Jefferson and Stefon Diggs, that they can stymie Adams, especially with cornerbacks Jack Jones and Jalen Mills banged up. Adams is exactly what the Patriots don’t have, and what they probably cannot stop. Raiders 27, Patriots 23.
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