By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — This has to go down as one of the weirdest weeks in recent history in New England. The Patriots lost a game, and everyone by and large feels … good about it?
Certainly, there’s no scientific measurement on that sentiment. But after a Sunday night loss in Seattle wherein the Patriots went toe-to-toe with one of the NFL’s better teams, there’s certainly a lot of newfound hope in the local football team with regard to the big picture of the 2020 season.
Now, that feeling can either build momentum with a notch in the win column this weekend, or it can become distant history as doom sets in following a 1-2 start. That’s the distilled version of what’s at stake this weekend, when the 2-0 Las Vegas Raiders come to town.
The Raiders are feeling pretty good about themselves, too, as they led a come-from-behind win over the Saints on Monday Night Football last week.
Here’s what to watch for when this one kicks off on Sunday at 1 p.m.
Darren Waller. Darren Waller, Darren Waller, Darren Waller.
Some might argue that I just wrote the man’s name too many times, that I could have and perhaps even should have written it just once.
Waller has been the central focus for the Raiders’ offense this season, and thus, his name must appear in lights a minimum of five times.
Waller has been targeted 24 times this season; no other Raider has been targeted a double-digit number of times. Waller has 18 receptions; Josh Jacobs ranks second with seven. Waller leads the team with 148 receiving yards, roughly 230 percent more than Jacobs, who ranks second on the team with 63.
Suffice it to say, Waller has been the key to everything the Raiders do in the passing game. The question is, how do you stop him?
Certainly, the Patriots have a deep cornerback stable that may prove useful in limiting Waller’s effectiveness as a receiver. But if Waller is in-line, having a cornerback in the box could expose some vulnerabilities in the run defense. (Patrick Chung is sorely missed here.)
It will likely require a collaborative effort from the linebackers, corners and safeties to try to limit — not stop — Waller’s production. He’ll likely still make his fair share of plays, because he’s too good not to. But if the Patriots mix up their approach, it could be enough to confuse Derek Carr and lead to some incompletions at critical times.
Something of significant note, though, is that Waller missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday due to a knee injury. At first, it seemed like a day of rest after the late game on Monday, but Thursday’s absence raised some eyebrows to both Waller’s availability and potential effectiveness for Sunday.
BONUS: It’s far too early to make any sort of grand statements on rookie Kyle Dugger after, really, one full game of action. But based on his ferocious physicality displayed last week in the box, we’ll be on the lookout to see if he assumes a similarly disruptive role in this one.
More Opportunity For Cam’s Arm
Remember, if you can, all they back to Week 1. That was like, a million years ago. Anyways, way back then, Cam Newton was merely a rusher, a single-threat quarterback who likely didn’t have a firm enough grasp on the playbook to spread the ball around the field.
Then Newton went out to Seattle and had one of the best passing nights of his career.
This week, expect some more of that, as the Raiders have not been particularly potent against the pass thus far.
Teddy Bridgewater — Newton’s replacement in Carolina — had an efficient day in Week 1, completing 22 of 34 passes for 269 yards and a touchdown. Drew Brees looked extremely iffy on Monday night but still put forth solid passing numbers: 26-for-38, 312 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT.
The Raiders have surrendered the fourth-most passing yards in the NFL thus far, and given the way Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick attacked Seattle’s vulnerable pass defense, a similar air-heavy attack may be in order once again this week.
Trouble Up Front
David Andrews’ return to the practice field on Thursday was a welcome sight. His intense thumb wrap was not. The fact that he didn’t actually participate in practice likewise does not portend positivity for Sunday.
Clearly, the First Team All Tough Guy center wouldn’t have missed Wednesday’s and Thursday’s practices unless something was really ailing him, and his big wrap showed that his issue is no joke.
And if Andrews can’t go, they don’t have a really easy solution. Joe Thuney could slide over, but then he’d need to be replaced at left guard. Hjalte Froholdt is on the active roster and could fill in for Andrews, but Froholdt has never logged an offensive snap in the NFL. (He has nine special teams snaps to his name.)
There are some other options, but the best one for the Patriots would be to have Andrews healthy enough to play. If he’s not … some trouble could arise, and the Patriots’ offense could be in for some hiccups.
BONUS: The Raiders’ offensive line is all busted up, too. Richie Ingognito, who didn’t play last week, was put on IR, and Trent Brown (who also didn’t play last week) is still dealing with a calf issue. This game may not make for the best O-line tape either way.
The Raiders have the very worst third-down defense in the NFL, allowing conversions at a 58.3 percent clip. The Patriots have the fourth-best third-down offense, so that figures to bode well for New England building some long, scoring drives. … Both teams have top-10 red zone offenses, so whichever team can stiffen in the red area and force field goals instead of allow touchdowns may just be the winner. … The Patriots might want someone other than Cam Newton to have a successful rushing day. Sony Michel has 56 yards on the season, Rex Burkhead had 34, and J.J. Taylor has 27. The Raiders are allowing 4.92 yards per carry, which is ninth-worst in the league. … Jon Gruden is still mad about the tuck rule. He’ll forever be mad about the tuck rule. Interestingly, this will only be he his second trip back to Foxboro since that famed night in the old stadium. As the coach of the Bucs, Gruden led the Buccaneers into Gillette Stadium and lost, 28-0.