Two legendary AFC teams heading in two very different directions meet in primetime
The Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots have been two of the AFC's powerhouse teams this century. In 21 Super Bowls held since 2000, these franchises have combined for eight NFL championships; New England has six and Baltimore two. Pittsburgh is the only other AFC team to win multiple Super Bowls during that stretch.
Rarely have we seen either team in a better position for the No. 1 draft pick than the conference's No. 1 overall seed. Yet that's where we are with New England heading into this marquee "Sunday Night Football" matchup. The Patriots, at 3-5, already have more losses than they had all of last year. They're on track for the first sub-.500 season since head coach Bill Belichick's start with the team (2000). They needed a late-game field goal just to beat the winless New York Jets on "Monday Night Football."
The Ravens, meanwhile, are chugging along at 6-2 but in a precarious position themselves. They're two games behind the AFC North division lead and have already lost once to the Pittsburgh Steelers. A wild-card berth would make their road to the Super Bowl difficult, potentially including road games against the Bills, Chiefs, and perhaps the Steelers again. The Patriots are facing a must-win situation heading into a second-half schedule where they'll need to go 7-1, maybe 8-0 to have a shot at winning the division.
It makes this Ravens-Patriots contest as lopsided as any as we've seen in recent years. But you never can count out a team with Belichick roaming the other sideline. Let’s delve into whether there’s any chance the Patriots can pull off the upset.
Sunday Night Football: Baltimore at New England
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 15 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Ravens -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Lamar Jackson go deep on the Patriots' defense?
The reigning NFL MVP has taken a small step back in production thus far in 2020. At the halfway mark, Jackson's on pace for slightly fewer yards, touchdowns, and more interceptions compared to 2019. His yards per attempt have declined to 7.1 from 7.8 as, once again, no Ravens receiver is on track to post a 1,000-yard season.
Jackson keeps teams guessing with his legs as well as his arm. But he's well-positioned to fine-tune the passing game this Sunday night against the Patriots. Their defense ranks last in pass yards allowed per play, allowing a league-worst 8.41 per completion. On Monday night, they gave up a 50-yard touchdown pass to the Jets' hardly immortal backup, Joe Flacco, who also threw for three touchdowns overall. Keep in mind the Jets had thrown a total of four touchdown passes in eight games this season before facing the Patriots.
Jackson can easily stretch the field with the Ravens' league-leading rushing attack. But the game plan should involve a couple of shots downfield to players like Marquise Brown and Devin Duvernay. Especially with two Patriots cornerbacks, Stephon Gilmore and Jonathan Jones, not practicing entering the weekend, there's a weak spot in the defense worth exploiting.
2. Can Cam Newton find enough weapons?
Newton has been a mess since a return from the COVID-19 list after testing positive for coronavirus. The last time he threw a touchdown pass was September while five interceptions during the past four games alone are not far off from Tom Brady's mark (eight) for all of last season. Newton threw for just 98 yards against the 49ers and there's been talk of him being benched with another lackluster performance Sunday night.
A major positive from the Jets game, though is Newton finally rediscovered some chemistry with the receiving corps. Undrafted free agent Jakobi Meyers ignited the effort, posting a career-high 12 catches for 169 yards while attempting to fill the shoes of injured wideout Julian Edelman. The question is whether Meyers can continue the output against the vaunted Ravens defense.
If he doesn't, other options need to step up. The hope is that N'Keal Harry returns from a concussion, but he caught a grand total of one pass in two games before the injury. Can journeyman Damiere Byrd continue a workmanlike performance in recent weeks? He's caught at least one pass in seven straight games. And can the Patriots find a way to create the dump-off screens that once made James White and Rex Burkhead such successful pass-catching threats out of the backfield?
3. Can the Ravens' defense force turnovers?
The Ravens, once again, are feasting on their opponents defensively. They're tied for fourth in the NFL with 14 takeaways and lead the NFL with 10 fumbles recovered. They have three fumble returns for a touchdown, including last week in a 24-10 victory against the Colts. The Ravens D held the Colts scoreless for the second half while forcing Philip Rivers into a third-quarter interception.
Now, they're poised to face a Patriots team that has an uncharacteristic minus-one turnover margin. They've given the ball away 15 times over the season's first half, including 11 interceptions, and have faced a top-10 defense just once all season. That was a 33-6 blowout at the hands of the 49ers in which the Patriots never got the ball moving downfield. Newton threw three interceptions in that game, foreboding what could become a disastrous Sunday night.
Both teams will be motivated to play each other and don't discount Bill Belichick's ability to rally his troops. You may remember, way back when, a 4-7 Ravens team in 2007 nearly disrupted the Patriots' perfect 16-0 regular season.
Problem is, this time around there are just not enough weapons for New England on offense. Add in the propensity for Cam Newton turnovers against an aggressive, opportunistic Ravens D and this game could get ugly, fast. The bigger question might not be if the Ravens win but whether Sunday night is Newton's last game as a starting quarterback for New England.
Prediction: Ravens 38, Patriots 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.