LAS VEGAS — There are fantastic finishes in the NFL. Then there are fantastic finishes.
Then there was Sunday’s New England Patriots-Las Vegas Raiders finish, one which defies description.
With overtime looming and Patriots coach Bill Belichick opting to run the ball on the final play of regulation, Rhamondre Stevenson ran for 23 yards into Raiders territory, then decided to lateral the ball back to Jakobi Meyers, who was eight yards behind him in the hopes of keeping the play alive.
Meyers decided to run back toward the original line of scrimmage instead of forward. He saw quarterback Mac Jones open and decided to lateral it to him across the Allegiant Stadium field.
What he didn’t see was Chandler Jones, the Raiders’ edge rusher. Meyers lofted the ball, No. 55 was all alone as the wobbly, errant lateral throw cradled into his hands at the Patriots’ 48 and off he went. Mac Jones attempted to tackle the end zone-bound Raider and he got stiff-armed in the face for his efforts.
Jones covered the rest of the ground escorted by his teammates into the end zone as the 62,273 who witnessed it were in a state of both euphoria and shock of a 30-24 Raiders victory.
The Raiders had just secured one of the craziest wins in their 62-year history, and that’s saying something considering some of the wild finishes they’ve been part of.
There was the Immaculate Reception 50 years ago against the Steelers which cost the Raiders a win in the AFC playoffs. Ironically, those two teams meet this coming Saturday in Pittsburgh.
There was the Holy Roller against the Chargers in San Diego back in 1978. There was the “Sea of Hands” with Clarence Davis against the Dolphins in the 1974 AFC championship game at the Oakland Coliseum. There was the “Ghost to the Post” with Dave Casper catching a pass against the Colts in Baltimore to set up a game-winning TD catch in the 1977 AFC divisional game.
Put this one right at the top. The only thing missing was the late Bill King being alive to call it on the radio, though current play-by-play man Jason Horowitz did invoke King’s signature line of “Holy Toledo!” as he called the play.
In addition to the win, Sunday’s performance exorcized the demons of last week’s 17-16 loss to Baker Mayfield and the Rams after the Raiders allowed two touchdowns in the final 3:19.
“I’ve played football a long time and I’ve never seen anything like that,” said defensive end Maxx Crosby. “When Chan got it, I was yelling for him to lateral it to someone. But he had already started toward the end zone and that stiff-arm was perfect.”
Even the Raiders’ receivers were impressed.
“Good form,” said Hunter Renfrow, who along with tight end Darren Waller, returned to action after missing several weeks with injuries. “That was a textbook stiff-arm.”
Jones said he was in the right place at the right time.
“I saw Jakobi looking to throw it to Mac Jones,” Jones said of how the play unfolded. “When I caught it I was thinking, ‘Who’s around me?’ Then I stumbled a bit after the stiff-arm and I was looking to find somebody to pitch it to, I just wanted to keep the play alive. But when I didn’t see anybody I just turned the jets on and the rest was history.”
Jones’ heroics helped save the Raiders’ season as the team improved to 6-8 and kept their faint playoff hopes alive. But they needed more than that to prevail Sunday.
After blowing a 17-3 halftime lead which included blocking a New England punt (the first by the Raiders in eight years) and ultimately trailing New England 24-17, the Las Vegas defense managed to get the ball back for one last time with 2:11 remaining in the game, no timeouts and the ball on its 19.
Quarterback Derek Carr, who had struggled for a good portion of the afternoon, suddenly found his rhythm. He connected with Mack Hollins on 4th-and-10 for a first down. They hooked up again on the next play for another first down. After hitting Josh Jacobs for a short gain, Carr went deep over the middle to Waller for a first down at the New England 30 with 1:05 to go.
With 37 seconds left, Carr took his shot for the end zone. He made a good throw and Keelan Cole hauled it in for an apparent touchdown. However it didn’t appear he had both feet inbounds. The play was reviewed and the decision was upheld.
When asked if he thought the play would stand, Cole said, “No idea. I was hoping it would be good. But I didn’t know.”
Carr said: “I was hoping we’d get one to go our way. And when the official came over to the coach (Josh McDaniels) I knew we were good. You can learn a lot standing next to the coach.”
It was a day where so many things were going wrong for the Raiders, you weren’t sure they could avoid having the last rites administered. They had a season-high 13 penalties. They had blown leads of 13 or more points on four different occasions this season and as the Patriots reeled off 21 unanswered to take the lead late, it looked like this was yet another instance. Mac Jones had shown poise in holding up against Crosby, Jones and the rest of the Raiders’ defense. He avoided being sacked and made enough plays to keep his team in it.
But as long as there was still time — 3:43 in the Raiders’ case — nobody was going to relax. Or give up.
“You always play to the final whistle,” said Hollins, who was on the field for the historic final play helping out the secondary. “We always talk about playing until the very end and we were rewarded (today).”
It was uncharacteristic of a Belichick-coached team to do something so unsound and resort to playing sandlot football. You might say it was Un-Patriotic. And he said as much afterward as the loss dropped the Pats to 7-7 and didn’t help their playoff chances.
“I would say we made a mistake on it,” he said of the lateral. “You know, (the) play didn’t work. Made a mistake on the play. “Yeah look, we’ve talked about situational football, we talk about it every week. But we’ve obviously gotta do a better job playing situational football and not making critical mistakes in the game.”
But the Raiders won’t apologize. And as observers of the first night of Hanukkah celebrated the miracle of that Jewish holiday, the Silver and Black celebrated their own miracle at their temple off the Las Vegas Strip. The Hanukkah Miracle. Perhaps redundant but sounds good nonetheless. No dreidel required.