Welcome to Season 8, Episode 9 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
Now, I’m not one of those salty folks who will attempt to discredit the Patriots’ 8-0 start by pointing out that their schedule has mostly been teams in disarray, teams limited in talent, and the Jets (who, as usual, are all of the above) through the season’s first half.
You can play only who the league’s schedule mavens tell you to. And I’m a believer that the AFC East, which the Patriots have won for 10 straight seasons and are working on an 11th, isn’t so much a traditionally terrible division as one that is annually overwhelmed by the greatest dynasty in professional football history.
That said, it sure feels like this Sunday is bringing the first real challenge of the season for the Patriots, doesn’t it? The Baltimore Ravens host the Patriots Sunday night, and they are not just a very good team (5-2, first place in the also-lousy AFC North), but they feature a quarterback who is on the short list of the most electrifying players in the league, and they have a history under coach John Harbaugh of giving the Patriots a difficult time.
The Patriots enter Sunday’s game leading the NFL in points (250, or 31.3 per game) despite some inconsistency on offense. Tom Brady has been effective at age 42, but he ranks behind the likes of Derek Carr, Matthew Stafford, and Kirk Cousins in passer rating (95.0), and the running game, usually featuring Sony Michel, is tied for last in the NFL with the Jets at 3.2 yards per carry.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Ravens enter with the second-highest scoring average in the league (214, 30.6 per game). They’re second only to Nick Chubb and the Browns in rushing yards per attempt (5.5), due largely to that electrifying dual-threat quarterback, Lamar Jackson, who plays as if the old Madden version of Michael Vick had a secret turbo button that took him to an even higher voltage.
The Patriots’ defense has been phenomenal, allowing just 40 points (5 per game) and scoring as many touchdowns (4) as it has allowed. It’s been so overwhelming that it is drawing comparisons to the ’85 Bears and other dominant defenses in NFL lore. But in the parade of Luke Falks, Sam “Casper’’ Darnolds, and yes, vastly overrated Baker Mayfields, they’ve barely had a quiz, let alone a test like this one. It should be a doozy.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this thing started . . .
Three players I’ll be watching not named Tom Brady
Lamar Jackson — Well, obviously. The second-year passer/runner is going to be all over this preview, more so than any other player the Patriots face this season. He’s not the most polished passer, but he’s been more than adequate in his first full season as a starter (136 of 215, 11 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 1,650 yards, 94.1 rating). He has taken 17 sacks, and the Patriots have amassed an impressive 31, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to get to him often. The sacks are sometimes the result of his mobility — and his mobility is so impressive that Patriots safety Devin McCourty said this week, “I’ve never seen a player like this at the quarterback position . . . His speed. The way he’s able to throw the ball down the field. You watch some games where he’s moving around the pocket, he’s close to running, and he sees a guy downfield, and it’s like he flicks his wrist and it’s 50 yards down the field easily.’’ But when he does run? He’s as elusive and dangerous as any running back in the league. Consider: Jackson is 10th in the NFL in rushing yards with 576, which is just 26 fewer than the Cowboys’ bell-cow back, Ezekiel Elliott, and more than the likes of Aaron Jones, Mark Ingram, and yes, Michel. Jackson is averaging 6.9 yards per carry and 82.3 per game, and now he faces a Patriots defense that for all of its excellence did show hints of vulnerability against the run last Sunday against the Browns (Chubb picked up 131 yards on 20 carries). Just as we wondered last Sunday whether the rumors that the Patriots wanted to trade up for Mayfield in the 2018 draft had any merit, we must also wonder whether the Patriots gave serious thought to taking Jackson with the 31st pick in the same draft. The Patriots took Michel. The Ravens grabbed Jackson with the next pick. Hmm.
Nick Folk — Miss Stephen Gostkowski yet? You should, and you can acknowledge it. Sure, he was having an inconsistent season, missing four extra points and a field goal attempt before going on injured reserve with a hip injury (which might explain the struggles) after Week 4. In his 14 seasons with the Patriots, Gostkowski has been an exemplary kicker, setting the franchise’s scoring record, but he never quite got his due because he happened to succeed the most clutch kicker in the history of football, Adam Vinatieri. It’s almost like it was held against Gostkowski because he had been merely very good and reliable rather than putting together a highlight reel of Super Bowl winners (though his late field goal did clinch the Super Bowl LIII win over the Rams) and Raiders-crushing wobblers through the snow that somehow split the uprights. I’ve said a couple of times through the years that Patriots fans have forgotten what a mediocre kicker looks like. They’re getting a reminder this season in Gostkowski’s absence, and mediocre might be generous. The Patriots released Mike Nugent, who got the first crack at Gostkowski’s gig, Monday after he missed a 34-yard field goal and had a 29-yarder blocked against the Browns. He wasn’t bad enough — he went 15 of 16 on extra points and 5 of 8 on field goals — to move on and recycle in another ex-Jet, Folk. Color me skeptical that he’s the solution — the 34-year-old hasn’t kicked in the NFL since 2017, when he went 6 of 11 on field goals and 7 of 9 on extra points for the Buccaneers. He last played in the rapidly defunct Alliance of American Football for the Arizona Hotshots. Say, does anyone have Matt Bahr’s phone number?
Stephon Gilmore — [Dwight Schrute voice] Question . . . Is Gilmore in the midst of the best season a Patriots cornerback has ever had? Ty Law was All-Pro in 1998 (when he had nine interceptions) and 2003 (when he led the league with 23 passes defensed; why were they throwing his way at that point?). I still believe Mike Haynes is the best corner ever to play, and he was brilliant from the get-go with the ’76 Patriots until his lamentable trade to the Raiders in ’83. I’m sure there are others, though it seems fans have soured on 2014 Darrelle Revis’s contributions. Gilmore, who was instrumental in breaking the Rams’ hyped offense in the Super Bowl, is in the midst of an all-timer of a season. Quarterbacks have just a 36.0 rating throwing in his direction this year, a lower rating than they’d receive if they just spiked the ball and gave up. Earlier this week, he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Month after picking off two passes and breaking up 11 passes in October. (He dropped a potential third pick last Sunday when Mayfield hit him in the hands.) There’s a decent chance Gilmore adds to his interception collection Sunday if Jackson, whose accuracy still can go on the fritz, makes the mistake of targeting a Ravens receiver in his vicinity. I’m putting him down for at least one pick.
Grievance of the week
Listen, we know it’s part of the Patriots’ way or lore or culture to find motivation in comments by media and opposing players about how they could be in for a battle in a given game. Rodney Harrison was the master of the no-one-believed-in-us self-motivating approach, and that, like now, was a time when absolutely no one doubted the Patriots’ overall excellence, even if they might be picking against them in a given week. It’s remarkable how Bill Belichick and the Patriots find a way to convert what are often benign comments into extra motivational fuel on game day.
But do we have to take any comment a Patriots opponent makes about his belief in himself and his own team as some regrettable “Uh-oh, shouldn’t have said that!’’ piece of braggadocio that should be posted in bold type on all walls in Gillette Stadium?
We got a particularly absurd example of this phenomenon this past week when Ravens tight end Nick Boyle had this to say about facing the Patriots’ defense: “We’ll see how good they are once we play them. I don’t think they’ve seen anyone like our offense or like Lamar. They’re a good team and we’ll need to bring our A-game.’’
Boyle made three statements there. All of them were true. We will see how good the Patriots’ D is. The Patriots haven’t faced anyone like Jackson. And the Ravens are going to have to be at their best to beat the Patriots.
Yet a quick search of “Nick Boyle bulletin-board material’’ on Thursday afternoon yielded 1,910 results, including stories on NESN and PatriotsWire.com. I also heard it mentioned on two radio stations.
Fortunately, not even the Patriots themselves seemed up to trying to mine motivation from Boyle’s harmless comments.
“He was right, though,’’ said Devin McCourty. “We haven’t seen an offense like this; we haven’t seen a quarterback like this. So, to me, any time you take two good teams and you play them on a Sunday night game, you’re going to get their best shot. We’re going to get their best shot, they’re going to get our best shot, and it’s going to be a battle.’’
If that’s bulletin-board material, you’ve got yourself a pretty boring bulletin board there. Maybe put up a few pictures or bumper stickers or something.
Lamar Jackson vs. multiple Patriots defenders
Sorry for the Jackson overkill, but there is no other matchup that is even close to this one, or has as many variables. The Patriots’ exceptional defense hasn’t faced a quarterback like him. And he hasn’t faced a defense like the Patriots’.
It’s going to be fascinating to discover what Bill Belichick, Jerod Mayo, and Steve Belichick have cooked up to defend him. One thing seems to be apparent to anyone that has studied his film or seen him blow past players charged with “shadowing’’ him in earlier games: A single player, whether a fast linebacker such as Jamie Collins or a speedy defensive back such as Jonathan Jones, cannot be tasked with the solo assignment of neutralizing his running skills. He’s too shifty and too fast. As Kyle Van Noy put it Thursday, “It’s going to take all 11 of us, for sure. He’s a special player.’’
Devin McCourty elaborated on the foolhardy spy concept earlier in the week. “When you say spy, it’s very simplistic,’’ he said. “Within spying, other guys have to do their job. If you put Lamar Jackson in the middle of the field and you choose whatever linebacker or defensive end, and you say, ‘Go tackle him’. I’m saying maybe one time you touch him. Every other time you won’t tackle him at all.’’
Perhaps this is simplistic too, but it’s the truth: The Patriots’ ability to execute it will determine whether they come back from Baltimore with or without a blemish in the loss column.
Prediction, or does anyone know what Billy Cundiff is up to these days?
I’ll cut right to it. This is the first time I’m picking against the Patriots this season, and I think it will ultimately end up as their first, and perhaps only, loss during this regular season. The Patriots have beaten the Ravens the last three times they’ve met, including a 41-7 win at Baltimore in December 2013, the teams’ last meeting there. I suspect the Patriots will slow Jackson for the most part, but he will break one or two big running plays at opportune times. The game will come down to how Brady and the inconsistent and injury-plagued offense fares against the Baltimore defense, which is 16th in average points allowed and 26th against the pass, but third against the run this season. They’ll have their moments, but behind that makeshift offensive line there won’t be enough, and when it’s over we might be wondering who is next in line at kicker. Ravens 20, Patriots 17.