LAS VEGAS (AP)If the New England Patriots make the playoffs, their weeklong stay out West likely will be a major reason.
They remained in Arizona this past week after beating the Cardinals 27-13 on Monday night, training in Tucson. That victory put the Patriots, at 7-6, in position for the seventh and final AFC playoff spot.
Given that the first two teams just outside the postseason – the Los Angeles Chargers and New York Jets – have the same records, Sunday’s game at Las Vegas is critical, especially considering the Patriots’ closing stretch. New England’s final three games are against teams that as of now would be in the playoffs.
So instead of making two cross-country trips in a week, coach Bill Belichick decided to save the wear on his players and have them ready when they visit the Raiders (5-8).
”It’s definitely a good thing,” quarterback Mac Jones said on Boston radio station WEEI. ”It’s important to realize we’re out here to to do a job. It’s great weather out here, and it’s a great opportunity to have a really good week and to carry that over to Vegas.”
The Raiders could get two major receiving options back in tight end Darren Waller (hamstring) and wide receiver Hunter Renfrow (oblique). Both returned to practice Wednesday, but coach Josh McDaniels said he didn’t know if they would be activated off injured reserve in time to face the Patriots.
”It was good to be out there with the guys,” Renfrow said. ”It was fun watching them winning a couple there. Just being a part of it again is going to be a blast.”
UCHE COMES ON STRONG
The AFC defensive player of the week hasn’t started a game all season and even was inactive twice.
But Patriots linebacker Josh Uche is on a tear with 10 sacks in his past six games, including five in the past two weeks.
Belichick said a key for the third-year pro going back to the offseason was staying on the field.
”That wasn’t really the case the last two years,” Belichick said. ”He’s always worked hard and always done everything you’ve asked him to do. He’s been great to coach, but I think just his availability this year has affected his production.”
That production has been the best in the NFL over this recent stretch.
”He’s always put good plays on film and good plays on the practice field, and he’s flashed,” Belichick said.
EXTRA TIME TO RECOVER
The Raiders appeared headed to their fourth consecutive victory and real talk of a playoff push when they allowed the Los Angeles Rams to score two touchdowns in the final 3 1/2 minutes and lost 17-16 on Dec. 8.
”I think having a Thursday game and having those extra days was good for the team,” quarterback Derek Carr said. ”I think after the little win streak that we went on, the expectations are so high.”
How the Raiders respond won’t be known until they play the Patriots.
”The only response that really matters is on Sunday,” wide receiver Davante Adams said.
New England visited Las Vegas during training camp, and the teams had joint practices before meeting in a preseason game that the Raiders won 23-6.
Even with the Raiders’ struggles, Belichick said he sees the same kind of potential that Las Vegas displayed in that exhibition. He pointed to the Raiders having played 10 one-score games, though they won only three of them.
”A lot of those games could have gone either way, but I think when you look at them you see two very, very explosive players offensively (Adams and running back Josh Jacobs) and a great quarterback,” Belichick said.
The Raiders cut guard John Simpson last week and this week brought in Netane Muti, who was signed off the Denver Broncos’ practice squad. The availability of Alex Bars (knee) at that position is uncertain. Bars didn’t practice Wednesday.
The Raiders also are monitoring injuries at other positions.
”It’s not a challenge that is unique to us,” McDaniels said. ”As you know, New England is dealing with a bunch of different injury deals. Your depth becomes really important, I would say, in November and December every year. That’s why it’s important to try to look at the roster on the whole as 69 guys, not 53. Because at the end of the day, we’re going to need a bunch more than 53 to complete the season.”
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