In a media landscape built around ever outlandish takes and confrontational perspectives, Mike Reiss is one of the most nuanced voices covering the New England Patriots. A multi-year veteran and as respected as anybody on the beat, his opinion is one to be trusted.
That is what makes his halftime assessment from Sunday’s 30-24 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders so devastating. He published a tweet claiming that it “looks like they didn’t practice” leading up to that game — and it is not hard to see why. The Patriots, once again, looked unprepared and found themselves down two touchdowns as a result.
It was a comedy of errors best summed up by a goal-line sequence in the second quarter. The Raiders, who had allowed touchdowns on 14 straight goal-to-go possessions, held New England to three points.
Setting up shop at the Las Vegas 2-yard line, they ran Rhamondre Stevenson for a 1-yard gain on first down followed by Mac Jones overthrowing Jonnu Smith in the right corner of the end zone. The Patriots seemingly scored a TD one play later, but a New England timeout called before the snap negated the play.
After the game, head coach Bill Belichick claimed his team “really didn’t have the play right” before the ball was snap so he called for play to be stopped. What followed was an incompletion to Nelson Agholor, another timeout, a false start penalty when the ball was snapped before Smith was set, and eventually a 24-yard field goal.
“All of that — two timeouts, all of these plays — just to kick a field goal,” lamented Jason McCourty on NFL Network’s Good Morning Football on Monday.
McCourty, a former Patriots cornerback, knows the team. And he knows its focus on being prepared no matter what situations may arise in a game.
On Sunday against the Raiders, they were not that on several occasions. The goal-line series above is one of several examples, with McCourty mentioning another: a blocked punt later that quarter that set up a Las Vegas field goal; several players on the protection team were not set when the ball was snapped.
All of these plays culminated in the self-inflicted coup de grâce on the final play of the game: Rhamondre Stevenson lateraling the ball to Jakobi Meyers, who then tossed it across the field only to see Raiders linebacker Chandler Jones catch it and return it 48 yards for the game-deciding touchdown.
Both Stevenson and Meyers took the blame for the play, but in the grand scheme of things it was just another example of the 2022 Patriots simply not adhering to the core principles of a Bill Belichick-coached team.
Situational awareness, not shooting oneself in the foot, capitalizing on mistakes — those were the pillars of the New England dynasty. The team didn’t always win because it had an edge in talent, but because it was smarter and better prepared. That allowed the Patriots to win six Super Bowls, and to regularly beat up on inferior opposition.
On Sunday, the Raiders did their best to fall into that latter category. They had a season-high 13 penalties, and threw a pick-six. They let a 17-3 halftime lead slip out of their grasp and saw New England score 21 unanswered points to take the lead in the fourth quarter.
Other Patriots teams would likely have finished the deal. This one collapsed: its top-tier defense gave up a game-tying touchdown drive, setting up the futile attempt at a game-winning series.
“We collectively made too many mistakes and gave up some big plays that were obviously the difference in the game,” Belichick said on Sunday. “We just can’t do that in this league, and it cost us. We will work to eliminate those and continue to play the good football that we play, but we just had too many mistakes and too many bad plays to win.”
In that sense, the Patriots are starting to look like those teams they regularly beat up on for 20 years. They are now the ones not getting out of their own way, and it continues to cost them.
Who is to blame for that? According to another ex-Patriot, Matt Chatham, it all comes back to the players.
“When you miss multiple wide open receivers, it’s not a coach’s fault,” he wrote on Twitter on Monday. “When you drop a crucial wide open pass, not a coach’s fault. When you call for the snap before the receivers are set, not a coach’s fault. When you aren’t set at the snap on a punt, not a coach’s fault. On and on.
“And it’s not as if players are making excuses for themselves. Not at all. They have been very accountable with their public statements, explanations of what happened, and why it can’t happen. It’s not hard. When a player doesn’t execute an opportunity, the accountable party is… wait for it... the player.”
That does not absolve the coaching staff of any and all blame, though. After all, players and coaches live in a symbiotic relationship with one another: coaches put players in situations they are comfortable in and know how to handle, while players justify that usage by following their rules and limiting mistakes.
That’s the plan, at least in theory. For whatever reason, however, the Patriots are not translating it onto the field this year.
In the end, the NFL is a bottom-line business. And the results put forward by Belichick’s team speak for themselves: the Patriots are nowhere close to where they need to be at this point in the season. As a result, they are now in a do-or-die situation with three games left and their playoff hopes hanging by a thread.
Can the 2022 Patriots still be fixed? Stranger things have happened in pro football — like, say, a lateral being returned for a game-winning touchdown — but they are running out of time to address the issues that are plaguing them.
And a performance like Sunday’s that at times looked like “they didn’t practice” will not cut it.