LAS VEGAS — Chandler Jones couldn’t move, was unable to see much and was struggling to breathe. The Raiders edge rusher had jumped, high-pointed an ill-advised throwback from Patriots receiver Jakobi Meyers and caught it with the game tied at 24 and no time remaining. He then stiff-armed New England quarterback Mac Jones into the shadow realm, regained his balance after stumbling and sprinted 40 more yards for the walk-off touchdown. He was immediately swarmed by his teammates, pressed back and pinned against the wall near the Raiders’ tunnel.
In the midst of all the bedlam, Jones hadn’t really processed what happened. He’d saved the Raiders. They had gone from a 17-3 halftime lead — they were previously 0-4 this season when holding a double-digit lead at halftime — to trailing 24-17 with 3:42 remaining in the fourth quarter. They’d tied things up at 24 with 32 seconds left and pretty much ensured overtime was on the horizon, but it was Jones who wiped away the possibility of them finding a way to let this one slip away.
It wasn’t until the celebration was over and Jones was walking off the field at Allegiant Stadium that it hit him. His eyes welled with tears. Rather than brushing off the sensation, he paused and took it in. This season hasn’t gone how anyone wanted, but it especially hasn’t for him. He’s been held sackless in 11 of 14 games, hasn’t come close to living up to the huge contract he signed this offseason and has been ridiculed constantly throughout the year. In response, he’s largely restrained his emotions. This time, however, he allowed himself to let go.
“I definitely did get a little emotional,” Jones said. “I teared up a little bit because I just love football. And I think when I started to come off the field, it just hit me how big of a play I had made. So, I was like, ‘Let me take this moment for myself and drop a few tears.’”
NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE IT. @chanjones55 TOUCHDOWN FOR THE WIN.
? FOX pic.twitter.com/Rw64tmSqSK
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) December 19, 2022
Jones has maintained that he doesn’t get caught up in statistics, but he’s still human. He knows he hasn’t played to his Hall of Fame standard, and constantly hearing about it took its toll.
“I saw it in his eyes,” linebacker Denzel Perryman said. “Chandler’s been through a lot. … It’s probably just being frustrated. I’m pretty sure you media people know: Us athletes, we pay attention to what y’all say negatively. I’m not saying that Chandler was affected by that or anything like that, but he’s just been Chandler. He’s just been Chandler.”
Jones notched four sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in the last three games, so he’s been trending up. Still, making this sort of statement carried a different type of significance.
“He’s been just getting better and trusting the process,” fellow edge rusher Maxx Crosby said. “He’s a great player. It doesn’t always go your way in this game, especially as a rusher. They look at the sacks and the numbers and he’s just a guy that’s never going to let that affect him. He just keeps going and keeps improving. I’m so proud of him. It’s incredible.”
It must be acknowledged that Jones would’ve never had the opportunity to have this moment if it weren’t for monumentally moronic decision-making from the Patriots. The play was initially a handoff to running back Rhamondre Stevenson, who actually shed a tackle attempt by Jones and gained chunk yardage but was going to be brought down well short of the end zone. Instead of accepting his fate, he went to pitch the ball back to Meyers. Raiders both on and off the field were perplexed.
“I was back about 30 or 40 yards deep with the DBs,” cornerback Nate Hobbs said. “So, when he got to the sideline to the edge and I seen him pitch it, I’m like, ‘Oh, OK, that’s what we doing?’”
Raiders stun Patriots on epic final play
Meyers started running backward with the ball before looking up and taking stock of his surroundings. Crosby was closing in to make a hit when he saw the receiver cock back his arm to make a throw.
“It was insane,” Crosby said. “It was unbelievable.”
Crosby blasted Meyers, but not until the ball was gone. The pass slowly floated for about 10 yards, which gave everyone time to look toward who the heck it was intended for.
“And I’m like, ‘What is going on right now?’” Hobbs said. “Where is this ball going?’”
The only reasonable option was Mac Jones. That only added to the confusion.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” said defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, who was on the sideline. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my whole life playing football.”
Chandler Jones, who was perched at midfield, made the catch with ease. With the ball secured, Mac Jones was only one player standing between him and the end zone.
“I just saw him high-point it,” safety Duron Harmon said. “I was like, ‘Don’t get tackled by the quarterback.’”
Jones obliterated his fellow Jones on his way to scoring. It’s certainly disconcerting that they blew yet another lead, but pulling this one out still has value.
“It’s every game this year it seems like,” Crosby said. “Finally getting to close it out like that was incredible.”
The defense deserves most of the credit for keeping the team composed. Coming out of halftime, the offense quickly sparked the Patriots’ comeback on quarterback Derek Carr’s pick-six early in the third quarter. They would go on to punt five times in a row, including three three-and-outs, and the lead slowly began to slip away.
“We just know as a team that we got to play until those four zeros hit the clock. It’s no letting our foot off the gas,” Hobbs said. “We know that’s something that we got to take responsibility for.”
The defense gave up 14 points of their own in the second half. They were at their worst when they showed little resistance on the Patriots’ three-play, 76-yard drive to take the lead. And after their offense punted for the fifth time in a row, the game was hanging in the balance.
“You’re sitting there, and you got to count on the defense to get you the ball back to have another chance,” Carr said. “And they did, and we got it.”
The defense had their best series of the day, forcing a three-and-out with just over two minutes remaining. That set up the offense’s nine-play, 81-yard drive ending in receiver Keelan Cole’s controversial 30-yard touchdown to tie the game.
“We know last week (against the Rams) we made some critical mistakes at the end, and we made sure that it wasn’t going to happen again. You don’t want that bad taste in your mouth,” cornerback Amik Robertson said. “Everybody dialed in; we were doing it almost the whole game. All we had to do was go back to our fundamentals, believe in one another and be ourselves out there.”
The Raiders’ offense was completely out of sorts, but the defense continued to compete and give them chance after chance to get right. That could’ve devolved into finger-pointing, but instead they stayed together.
“It speaks to the group we got in this locker room,” Tillery said. “I think if we just come together and do our thing, we’re going to be all right.”’
That part remains to be seen. The Raiders are two games back of the Dolphins (8-6), who currently hold the No. 7 seed in the AFC. They’ll need to win out and have multiple teams ahead of them in the standings to lose some games the rest of the way in order to make it into the postseason. The odds of that all coming together are low, but it’s something to keep the group motivated.
“We just got to keep it going, man,” Perryman said. “At the end of the day, we just finished.”
Regardless of what the end result is, proving they are capable of finishing is something that could carry value for the Raiders moving forward. They did it often on their way to the playoffs last season, but that magic has been absent this year. It may be too late for them to recapture that and achieve what they want this season, but this is about more than just one year. Wins like this are necessary to instill a belief that they can ultimately get where they want to go.
“They’ve been through a lot; it’s been well documented,” coach Josh McDaniels said. “We’ve been in every game except for one and all that, and we certainly haven’t been perfect in any of them, but you can’t take away from their effort and their ability to handle adversity and the character that they have. They just continue to fight and continue to give great effort. And, fortunately, here the last month or month and a half, the ball has bounced our way a few times and we’ve made the plays that we needed to make at the end to win. I mean, sometimes it’s not pretty. It’s not about style points. It’s just about the result.”
(Top photo: Chris Unger / Getty Images)