LAS VEGAS — The back of Jakobi Meyers’ white jersey was covered in grass stains, remnants from a hard-fought game. He sat in silence in front of his locker, jersey and pads still on, left to comprehend one of the most bizarre, mind-numbing conclusions to an NFL game ever.
He hung his head, tears welling, surely replaying in his mind the sequences that led to Chandler Jones catching Meyers’ inexplicable cross-field throw and bulldozing his way to a walk-off, 30-24 Raiders win over the Patriots.
What just happened?? The @Raiders win on the final play!! #NEvsLV pic.twitter.com/cmKNUuab1k
— NFL (@NFL) December 19, 2022
When the 48-yard catch-and-run fumble had officially turned into a touchdown and this packed stadium was sent into mayhem, some New England players were too stunned to move. Mac Jones stood alone on the field and looked in disbelief at the chaos around him. Tyquan Thornton watched the Las Vegas bench clear as players mobbed one another in the back of the end zone. Even Raiders players put their hands to their heads and asked the same question.
Did that really just happen?
It wasn’t just shocking because of how it transpired, a nothing play turning into a season-defining one. It wasn’t just shocking because of how close the Patriots were to winning, both right before a referee review allowed a questionable Raiders touchdown to stand and when the Patriots got the ball back with a chance for the game winner.
It was shocking because it underscored something that would’ve seemed unimaginable a couple of years ago. But the unthinkable has happened: The New England Patriots play like a poorly coached football team.
Not in the sense that Bill Belichick is a bad coach, of course. His resume is the greatest of anyone to wear a whistle. And not in the sense that this increasingly lost season casts any doubt on his long list of accomplishments.
But the 2022 Patriots play the kind of football Belichick has long despised. We’re 15 weeks into the season, and the Patriots are still taking procedural penalties with regularity. Sunday, they had a delay of game and two false starts, wasted two timeouts on back-to-back plays inside the Las Vegas 5-yard line and still didn’t score a touchdown there. They also had a punt blocked, which is like rubbing salt in the wound, as special teams is the phase of the game Belichick has long spent more time focusing on than his peers, often finding value where they didn’t.
He has long prized situational football, too. There, the Patriots are a mess. They’re the worst red zone team in the NFL and didn’t solve their problems against a lowly Raiders defense that ranked 28th in that category before Sunday. New England also went 2-for-13 on third down.
For decades, it seemed, the Patriots watched as opponent after opponent made silly, unforced errors, perhaps in awe of the dynasty that was. Now the Patriots are making the kind of gaffes elite teams scoff at.
It’s not just the obvious mistakes, like the time the Patriots didn’t know the play call at the 1-yard line or the time Jonnu Smith wasn’t lined up properly, negating a touchdown. It’s that these Patriots aren’t masters of the minutiae the way New England teams of the past were.
Belichick is arguably the most detail-oriented coach around. No task was too minor to practice and engrain in his players. He emphasized to his players a rule few others were aware of, telling them not to extend the ball toward the pylon, risking a fumble, which could result in a touchback and possession for the other team. He even showed them the rule: Section 7, Article 3, Item 4, Bullet 1. He took advantage of loopholes few knew existed. He famously once put four offensive linemen on the field in a playoff game against the Ravens, setting up a touchdown with a play that left John Harbaugh baffled.
All of that is why Sunday’s loss and, specifically, the way it happened are so troubling. It’s bizarre to see a Belichick-coached team recklessly throwing the ball 20 yards across the field with no time left in a tie game, to see it so confused when it reaches the red zone and to see it making blunders on special teams.
The Patriots had been 26-0 under Belichick when leading by seven with 2:20 or less remaining and their opponent out of timeouts.
But these Patriots don’t play like those Patriots.
“We need to try to eliminate all the mistakes we made,” Belichick said. “All of us.”
All of that fails to mention how Belichick’s decisions with his offensive coaching staff have the unit rapidly backpedaling into one of the worst in the league. The offense managed only a single touchdown Sunday and has only six offensive touchdowns in the past five games.
The product has gotten so mediocre that the New England-Las Vegas game was flexed out of “Sunday Night Football,” something that surely irks Robert Kraft, who has presided over the most successful franchise in the league over the past 20 years.
Before the season, Kraft made clear that he wants his team not just in the playoffs but notching its first playoff win in the post-Tom Brady era. Even reaching the postseason feels like a pipe dream. The Patriots have the league’s toughest schedule remaining and need to win two of their final three just to have a chance.
The roster hasn’t changed much since this team won 10 games a year ago and went to the playoffs with a top-10 offense. But the way it plays has changed.
The Patriots are the team making the kind of mistakes that are supposed to happen only in the preseason. When the Patriots reached the Raiders’ 1-yard line in the second quarter, they were in such disarray that Belichick said they “didn’t have the play right.” He called timeout just before the snap went off (and, oh, by the way, called a play that would’ve been a touchdown if not for the timeout). Two plays later, the Patriots appeared to score on a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak, but Smith wasn’t properly lined up and was flagged 5 yards.
A collection of mistakes are turning this season into one that looks like it’ll end in Week 18. Silly mistakes, obvious mistakes, maddening mistakes. And Sunday, a new variety. The Patriots screwed up on every level on the last play.
It starts with the head coach, who used to be so good at making sure his players were aware of the in-game situation. Then it falls to the play caller, who decided that with three seconds left, a Hail Mary attempt was unreasonable and a field goal attempt was unrealistic, so he instead opted for a running back draw 55 yards from the end zone that had more of a chance to end in disaster than jubilation.
And then it goes to the players, which is where things are especially cruel. Rhamondre Stevenson and Meyers are the only offensive players still playing well. They fought through injuries to be out there Sunday, and both delivered the massive plays that gave the Patriots a late lead in the first place. And they tried to be heroes for an offense that too often needs them to be.
That left the Patriots to make sense of the most improbable of defeats. It was the first NFL walk-off, defensive touchdown in regulation in more than 40 years.
Players hugged one another in the locker room. They sauntered around, some aimlessly, shocked at what had just happened. Many couldn’t bring themselves to immediately take off their pads.
Finally, at 4:46 p.m. PT, more than 20 minutes after Chandler Jones had delivered one of the most shocking endings in decades, Meyers lifted his shoulder pads above his head and tossed them to the floor.
There was no changing what had happened. The Patriots made the kinds of mistakes they never used to. And it was just starting to feel real.
(Top photo of Rhamondre Stevenson: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)