Arguably the two top teams in the AFC face off Sunday night when the New England Patriots take on the Baltimore Ravens in "Sunday Night Football." Another chapter will be added to the rich history between the two teams who have larger aspirations than simply winning their division.
Both have commanding leads in the AFC East and AFC North, respectively, and are angling for the conference’s top seed. A win by the Patriots Sunday night would essentially clinch that honor for them; they’d have a minimum 2.5-game lead (plus tiebreakers) on every AFC team with just seven games left to play. The second-half schedule is harder for the Pats, but it also includes games against the winless Bengals and Dolphins; clinching home-field advantage would seem inevitable.
On the other hand, a Ravens win could change the entire course of the AFC. They’d be 6-2, just 1.5 games behind the Patriots, and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. Their second-half schedule is also difficult, including a game against the NFL’s other undefeated team (49ers). But could you imagine the confidence they’d have? This franchise would have landed a punch one decade after coming oh-so-close to ending the Pats’ perfect NFL regular season in 2007. And the victory guarantees them a minimum two-game lead in a division in which they’ve established firm control.
That 2007 game was one for the ages, a 27-24 Patriots win that wasn’t decided until some Tom Brady touchdown magic with 44 seconds remaining. Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was just 10 years old at the time; now he’ll match wits with Brady in a battle of quarterbacking generations. Can Jackson run circles around the most dominant defense in the NFL?
The Ravens have been one of the few to go toe-to-toe with the Patriots in the postseason. Their 2-2 record this century is like going 50-5 compared to the rest of the teams in the conference. Expect the home crowd to be geared up and this game to go down to the wire.
New England at Baltimore
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 3 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread:New England -3
Three Things To Watch
1: Is Lamar Jackson a better quarterback than Tom Brady right now?
No. But the answer is far closer than some might think.
Looking at strictly passing numbers, Jackson has just 1,650 passing yards to Brady’s 2,251. But add in Jackson’s 576 rushing yards compared to Brady’s three, and the totals even out. Jackson has so many yards on the ground he’s sixth in the AFC in rushing. That’s right; dynamic young running backs like Phillip Lindsay, Sony Michel, and James Conner trail him on the stat sheet. Michael Vick’s NFL record 1,039 rush yards as a quarterback appears to be in serious jeopardy.
Brady has a slightly better QB rating than Jackson (95.0 to 94.1). But Brady, while steady under center, has been little more than a game manager the past three weeks. He’s thrown just three touchdown passes in that span, as the dominant defense has provided a cushion where aggressive quarterback play just isn’t needed.
To be fair, Jackson has struggled in the air over the same stretch, throwing for just one touchdown and three interceptions. Last week, he was 9-for-20 against the Seahawks in a performance that raised questions about his throwing accuracy. But does it really matter when he’s destroying defenses on the run? The last three games have showcased those legs to the tune of 338 yards and two touchdowns. His 7.7 yards per carry average makes him a dynamic threat capable of unleashing big plays at any moment.
The question will be, of course, whether Brady can respond in kind. His top receiver, Julian Edelman, remains healthy, but the search for other weapons has been a season-long quest. The route of the troubled receiver with talent hasn’t worked out. Antonio Brown came and went; Josh Gordon was released off injured reserve this week. There needs to be a second player who emerges to allow Brady to open up the field.
Could that be running back James White? He’s caught at least four passes in five straight games. How about recent acquisition Mohamed Sanu? He broke into the offense with two catches last week but didn’t feel like a game-changer... yet. And Phillip Dorsett, still recovering from injuries, has yet to replicate his two-touchdown performance in the season opener.
Someone in that group needs to step up to allow Brady to work his own magic. Without it? Players like Jackson, especially with their ability to run at any moment, are on the verge of eclipsing Brady’s play and providing a better weapon for their teams.
2: Can the Ravens crack the Patriots' defense?
The Patriots defense, halfway through the season, continues to put up historic numbers. Baker Mayfield was the latest quarterback to fall victim last week; he threw for less than 200 yards, giving up the ball once while running back Nick Chubb's pair of fumbles limited an undisciplined Browns team.
Overall, the Patriots have 25 takeaways. That’s six more than any other team in the NFL. They’re allowing just 7.6 points per game, leading the league in total yards allowed and ranking second against the pass. That success is key considering Jackson’s still developing as a passer; stripping him of that option, or better yet forcing a few key interceptions, would swing the game.
And that’s what the Patriots defense has done. Two weeks ago, they had the Jets’ Sam Darnold seeing ghosts on the sideline after four interceptions. Their +17 margin is better than the total takeaways of all but one NFL team (Steelers). So the Ravens will need to take care of the football. To their credit, their seven giveaways are tied for the third-fewest in the NFL, impressive considering they start a 22-year-old quarterback in his second season.
Ironically, it’s typically the Ravens defense that’s causing havoc. But this unit is just 26th against the pass, likely to give Brady opportunities Sunday, while allowing 22.3 points per game. Chances are, the Patriots will match that 22 points which means the Ravens offense has to find a way to break through. Remember, no team has scored more than 14 points against the Patriots all season.
3: A Quick look at special teams
No matter how bad they’ve been offensively through the years, the Ravens have always had a secret weapon: Justin Tucker. The three-time first-team All-Pro has been one of the NFL’s best kickers for nearly a decade, and 2019 has been no exception. This year, he’s perfect on field goals (16-of-16) as well as extra points in what’s been a down year for his position overall. From Cody Parkey’s miss for the Bears in January’s NFC Wild Card game to future Hall of Famer Adam Vinatieri's struggles with the Colts this season, kickers can’t seem to avoid the negative spotlight.
Those problems have made their way over to the Patriots. Longtime dependable kicker Stephen Gostkowski is out for the year after suffering a left hip injury. Replacement Mike Nugent was unimpressive, missing three field goals and an extra point in four games before being cut this week. Now, the Patriots turn to former Jets kicker Nick Folk, a 34-year-old who last played for the now-defunct Arizona Hotshots of the Alliance of American Football. He was 12-for-16 on field goal attempts there, hitting one for 55 yards, but remains a shaky selection heading into Sunday’s contest.
Folk’s last game in the NFL was against the Patriots in a 2017 "Monday Night Football" game. He missed three field goals and an extra point before being released by the Buccaneers later that week. And now that’s who this team is depending on in late-game situations? The Patriots special-teams unit hasn’t really been tested because they haven’t been involved in a close game late. But if the Ravens can keep the score in the ballpark, it’s easily the biggest weakness they can exploit.
The Ravens will be jazzed up for a game they feel they can win with Lamar Jackson under center. The Patriots’ undefeated season is also softer than some might realize; seven of their eight opponents don’t have a winning record. There’s an opening here for the Ravens to break through.
But the Patriots, in the end, should always get the benefit of the doubt with Tom Brady in big games. The spread seems dead-on in a game that has the potential to tilt either way in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: New England 24, Baltimore 21
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.