Life in Sin City has been splendid so far, as the Las Vegas Raiders are off to their second 2-0 start since 2002. But Jon Gruden's team will face their biggest challenge yet when they travel to Gillette Stadium to take on the New England Patriots on Sunday.
The Patriots may look fallible on paper at 1-1, but the offense has new life with the arrival of Cam Newton, who looks every bit like he has regained his 2015 MVP form. In last Sunday's loss to the Seahawks, he was 30-of-44 for 397 yards, the most in his career since his second-ever game. Although his last-second keeper came up a yard short of the game-winning score, he looks like his old bruising self with 122 yards and four touchdowns on 26 carries this season.
Las Vegas, meanwhile, has a powerful offense of its own. The Raiders are fourth in the league in scoring after posting 34 points in each of their first two games. Derek Carr is making the case for a massive payday after posting a 114.9 quarterback rating; he has a 73.5 percent completion rate, is averaging 7.7 yards per attempt, and most importantly, has yet to turn the ball over.
Toppling the Patriots would be a massive achievement for the Raiders, who have not done so since the Tuck Rule game rematch in 2002. But don't expect New England to go easy. One week after snapping a streak of being favored in every game since Week 1 of the 2016 season — when Tom Brady was suspended — the Pats are nearly touchdown favorites once again.
Las Vegas at New England
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 27 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Derek Carr vs. Patriots secondary
Carr is in a crucial year of his career. While he technically still has three years left on his $125 million contract, the Raiders will only have a dead cap hit of $2.5 million if they want to move on from him next year. It's still early in the season, but he's giving them every reason to keep him around.
Slicing up the Carolina Panthers' secondary in Week 1 wasn't asking for much, but he looked even better against the vaunted Saints defense last week. What's more, he did it essentially without his top receiver, Henry Ruggs III, who was playing through a knee injury. Carr more or less had to force-feed the ball to tight end Darren Waller, who had 16 of the team's 38 targets. Still, he was able to spread the ball out to 10 other receivers and engineer a 24-0 run that started with a pair of scores inside the two-minute warning of the first half.
The Saints may be strong but the Patriots have perhaps the league's best secondary, starting with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. Waller could create matchup problems — although he missed practice early in the week with a knee injury — especially since New England was hit hard with opt-outs on defense. Still, with Ruggs, Bryan Edwards, and Hunter Renfrow banged up, expect the Patriots to focus extra on the tight end and give Carr his biggest test yet.
2. Can the Patriots' ground game become fully operational?
The Patriots became rather running-focused towards the end of Tom Brady's tenure and have continued that trend under Cam Newton. It helps when you have the most prolific and powerful running quarterback of all-time as a cheap offseason addition.
But after Newton, the Patriots' backfield has been rather quiet. He has 13 first downs this season, and only one back has even that many carries (Sony Michel, 17). Michel is averaging 3.3 yards per rushing attempt, and Rex Burkhead has a paltry 2.6. James White, who missed the last game after a fatal car accident involving his parents, and Burkhead are more involved with the passing game, but getting a more effective ground game will make the play-action-heavy offense even more effective.
And facing Las Vegas may be just what the team needed. Although the Raiders had a top-10 unit last season, they have allowed 4.9 yards per carry (24th in the NFL) in the first two weeks of the season. Obviously Michel, Burkhead, and White are not on Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara's level, but if they can inch up above four yards per carry, that could make a major difference.
3. How long can the Raiders' offensive line hold up?
The Raiders entered Monday's game banged up on the O-line and unfortunately exited looking even worse. With tackles Trent Brown and Sam Young inactive, they lost guard Richie Incognito to injured reserve when he aggravated his Achilles injury. Denzelle Good, who started in place of Brown, is battling a thumb injury and illness.
New England's defensive line has been middling this season, although it is early. The Patriots rank 19th with a 5.5 percent adjusted sack rate, a season after ranking eighth at a 7.7 percent rate. The losses of Jamie Collins Sr., Kyle Van Noy, Danny Shelton, and Dont'a Hightower loom large.
Josh Jacobs has been able to put up big raw numbers (181 yards, 3 touchdowns), but that has been more volume (52 attempts) than efficiency (3.5 ypc). Further erosion along the line may spell trouble for one of the team's most talented playmakers.
New England looked like a playoff juggernaut last week. They outgained the Seahawks and only fell a yard short of an impressive road upset. With Cam Newton back and apparently fully healthy, we've only seen the tip of the iceberg that is Josh McDaniels' playbook, and that's a scary thought. The Raiders are in good position to make a playoff run, but this game will tell us if they are more of a bubble team or true contender. I'm leaning towards the former.