FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here was the question to an NFL talent evaluator earlier this week:
Are the undefeated Las Vegas Raiders for real?
There was a pause, and then an instruction to look at their potentially problematic defense.
But the Raiders had just beaten the New Orleans Saints on Monday night, and made Drew Brees' right arm look old, hadn't they? Maybe, the evaluator said, but we'd know a lot more after their next three games, against the Patriots, Bills and Chiefs.
What do we know after the Raiders' 36-20 loss to the Patriots on Sunday?
"It was a close game and then all of a sudden, boom, they were up by like 20," said defensive end Maxx Crosby.
True. What else?
The evaluator was right about the defense. The Raiders' run defense is a big problem. The Patriots ran for 250 yards on 6.6 yards per carry, despite looking sluggish in the first quarter (19 yards rushing) and the Raiders essentially eliminating Cam Newton's legs from the game (27 rushing yards on nine attempts).
To start the game, the Raiders jammed up the middle of the field for the Patriots' rushers, but when New England started running wide, Las Vegas could not keep up and eventually the run defense wore down completely.
There were glimmers of promise for defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's unit. Newton was more off target than he had been in the first two games, completing just 17 of 28 passes for 162 yards, and threw an interception after losing track of Raiders safety Johnathan Abram while scrambling to keep a play alive.
But Vegas has to be troubled by the Patriots' success on the ground because it came on a day when Bill Belichick had to shift guard Joe Thuney to center to replace injured starter David Andrews. Two big third-quarter runs by Sony Michel -- for 38 and 48 yards, respectively -- showcase the gaping holes the Patriots were able to open.
When asked if the Raiders concentrated so much on bottling up Newton that it preoccupied their linebackers, Jon Gruden had no use for that excuse.
"When you hand the ball off and there's nobody there, it's a lot more than that," he said. "We missed some tackles and we had a couple players out of their gap."
That won't work, Gruden said, "not against the New England Patriots, and not against anybody."
The Raiders' offense has to be a lot more efficient to stay with the league's best offenses. Vegas scored just one touchdown in four trips into the red zone before a garbage-time score. The inefficiency was especially glaring in the first quarter, when the Raiders were dominating both lines of scrimmage, leading the Patriots in yards 103-38, but only leading the game 3-0. They fumbled one scoring chance away (one of three fumbles) at the Patriots' 13-yard line, and settled for a field goal after an ineligible man downfield penalty gave them a long third-down chance they could not convert. Any Raiders fan who has watched New England adjust during games under Belichick had to have a sinking feeling when Las Vegas left all those early points on the field. To make matters harder, the Raiders did not convert their first third-down opportunity of the game (excluding a defensive holding penalty) until the fourth quarter.
"They won the turnover thing and they won in the situations [on] third down and all that good stuff," quarterback Derek Carr said. "What did you expect, for New England to roll over after what happened last week? They're going to come in here guns blazing. We didn't play our best game and we still made it a game."
That, admonitions by talent evaluators notwithstanding, might be the most important takeaway for a young Raiders team that was 7-9 last season and is in the middle of a huge litmus test, with this slate on tap in October: vs. Bills, at Chiefs, BYE, vs. Buccaneers. They came to New England on a short week with a laundry list of injuries -- at least four starters were out at kickoff -- and they trailed by just 10 early in the fourth quarter before the Patriots scored two touchdowns in the span of 11 seconds. Gruden said he was looking forward to getting out of Foxborough and back to Las Vegas -- a sentiment likely shared by many other people -- and his first stop will probably be the trainer's room. The Raiders aren't alone in being bitten by the NFL's early-season injury bug, but a young, building team has a much smaller margin for error than an established power, and the errors caught up with this Vegas group on Sunday.
"It's hard, no doubt," Gruden said, before launching into part of the Raiders' voluminous injury report. "We lose Bryan Edwards today, we've already lost Tyrell Williams, we've lost [Henry] Ruggs, we're missing two right tackles and our left guard, our middle linebacker. ... You start to wonder what the hell is going on. This is the National Football League. It's for mentally tough men. We're all professionals. We're all getting paid. We need some young guys to step up, so be it."