Welcome to Season 9, Episode 9 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup.
The Ravens have been a worthy and occasionally loathed rival inasmuch as the Patriots have had one over the last 20 years.
Under coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens are 4-6 against the Patriots, just 4-10 in their history, and have never won a regular-season game at Gillette Stadium.
But they have won enough meaningful games to become at least a nemesis, as annoying as one of Ray Lewis’s ridiculous dances back in the day.
The Ravens and Patriots have split four playoff games, all during the Bill Belichick-vs.-Harbaugh years. The Ravens bounced the Patriots from the playoffs in the 2009 and ’12 seasons, while the Patriots sent the Ravens home in the 2011 (just a bit outside, Billy Cundiff) and 2014 season (the Patriots overcame a pair of 14-point deficits in a divisional-round classic).
When the stakes have been high, they’ve both tasted the thrill of victory and the you-know-what of defeat. So it might be tough for Patriots fans to acknowledge that the Ravens played a leading role in ending the unparalleled Belichick/Tom Brady partnership.
The Patriots were 8-0 and boasted the league’s No. 1 defense when they faced Lamar Jackson and the Ravens in Week 9 last season. The Ravens exposed the Patriots' defense, prevailed, 37-20, and sent the Patriots into a tailspin that is probably going to lead to a full rebuild.
Including the postseason, the Ravens are 14-3 since last season’s matchup; the Patriots are 7-9.
The rivalry resumes, but for the first time in a long time, it no longer resembles an even fight.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this thing started …
Three players I’ll be watching
Mark Andrews: The Patriots have faced some superb tight ends this season — the Raiders' Darren Waller in Week 3, the Chiefs' Travis Kelce in Week 4, and the 49ers' George Kittle in Week 7 — and overall have done an excellent job at defending them.
Kittle had the most receptions by a tight end against the Patriots this season (a modest five, for 55 yards), and Kelce compiled the most yardage (70 yards, on three receptions). Waller was held to just two catches for 9 yards.
Overall, the Patriots have allowed 23 catches by tight ends for 294 yards and a touchdown (by Kelce), an average of just under three receptions and 37 yards per game.
That does not bode well for Andrews, who has struggled with the extra attention he has received from defenses after building a fast rapport with Jackson and breaking through with a Pro Bowl season last year, his second in the NFL.
Andrews hauled in 64 passes for 852 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, but hasn’t matched that pace this year in the first two categories, with just 26 catches for 297 yards. He does have five touchdowns, but four have come in two games.
Andrews’s usage is trending the wrong way, too. Over the last three games, he has just 75 receiving yards. The Patriots handled Andrews well last season (two catches, 21 yards), but look for Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman to emphasize getting him involved Sunday.
Damiere Byrd: Jakobi Meyers earned well-deserved plaudits for his 12-catch, 169-yard performance in the win over the Jets last Monday night. But mostly lost in the postgame dissection was the crucial performance of Byrd, another unsung Patriots receiver with a virtually opposite skill set to Meyers.
The speedy Byrd had five catches for 65 yards, including a 31-yard catch-and-run that set up the tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Byrd is the one Patriots receiver who came into this season with a bond with Cam Newton, having played with him in Carolina for three seasons. While the benefits of that have been inconsistent (Byrd has 26 catches for 337 yards and still seeks his first touchdown), it’s apparent that he can be an asset to the Patriots in a supporting role.
He’s not quite 2016 Malcolm Mitchell, but he’s an upgrade over 2019 Phillip Dorsett.
Yannick Ngakoue: The Ravens traditionally are one of the NFL’s better pass-rushing teams, and while there isn’t a sackmaster with the name recognition of Terrell Suggs or Peter Boulware on the current defense, they have managed 24 sacks, tied for sixth in the league.
However, Calais Campbell, who leads the Ravens with 4½ sacks, is out this week with a calf injury. From the Ravens’ perspective, this would be a fine week for Ngakoue (acquired from the Vikings last month) to pick up his first sack — or sacks — with his new team.
Ngakoue had five sacks with the Vikings before the deal, and accumulated 37½ from 2016-19 with the Jaguars.
Grievance of the week
Not to get all existential on you, but this week’s grievance is that the Baltimore Ravens exist at all.
In a just world, owner Art Modell, facing financial hardship, would not have crushed Cleveland fans' hearts, punted his own soul, and announced during the 1995 season that he was moving the Browns to Baltimore for the following season. The Browns belonged to Cleveland — they were Cleveland — and always should have remained in Cleveland, just as the Colts never should have jilted Baltimore for Indianapolis in the dead of night in 1984.
(The Browns did get to keep their records, history, and intellectual property and were revived as an expansion franchise — one already with a history — in 1999, but we all know it’s not really the same franchise.)
Modell had often vowed that the Browns always would remain in Cleveland, and he had scolded Colts owner Robert Irsay for bolting Baltimore years earlier. Modell turned out to be perhaps the most egregious case of an owner willing to be a hypocrite for the right price.
Of course, we must acknowledge that Modell’s skulduggery benefited the Patriots in a remarkable example of the butterfly effect: Modell, looking to blame someone other than himself for, well, everything, fired coach Bill Belichick at the end of that ’95 season.
Perhaps if word of the pending move hadn’t become public during the season, causing the Browns to collapse into chaos, Belichick would have remained in Cleveland for years, would never have joined Bill Parcells’s Patriots staff in ’96, and would never have made the impression on Robert Kraft that led the Patriots owner to give him his second chance as a head coach after the 1999 season.
The Browns never should have moved to Baltimore. The Ravens never should have existed. But don’t judge us, Cleveland — the Patriots have reason to be grateful it went down the way it did.
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson vs. Patriots' run defense
Common sense suggested that Jackson’s passing performance from his 2019 MVP season wouldn’t be sustainable in his second full season as a starter, and not just because his mechanics are sometimes reminiscent of a second baseman pivoting to turn a double play.
It’s just that he played at such a dazzling level — even in a fairly basic offense — that expecting him to stay there wouldn’t have been fair.
Jackson completed 66.1 percent of his passes last season for 3,127 yards, a league-best 36 touchdowns, and just 6 interceptions. He was especially excellent over his final seven regular-season games, throwing 24 touchdown passes and just one interception.
It’s not that Jackson has been bad this season, completing 62.9 percent of his passes for 1,513 yards, 12 TDs, and 4 interceptions, and the Ravens continue to win at a remarkable rate with him under center (he’s 25-5 as a starter).
But common sense has another suggestion for Sunday: Jackson would be wise to run, run, and run some more against the Patriots. The Patriots have the 25th-ranked run defense in the league (131 yards per game), and have struggled with setting the edge.
They just don’t have the personnel on the perimeter of the front seven that they used to, even with the relative stability provided by ex-Raven John Simon and the reasonable hope that Josh Uche will emerge in the second half of the season.
No team in the league runs the ball better than the Ravens, who average 170.1 yards per game. J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards have filled in ably for injured Mark Ingram, who tore up the Patriots last year with 112 yards (97 before halftime).
But the electrifying Jackson remains the biggest concern. After running for 1,206 yards — including 61 and a pair of touchdowns against the Patriots — last season, he’s on a slightly lesser but still impressive pace this year (469 yards, 5.9 per carry).
Or, Lee Evans didn’t drop it, Sterling Moore broke it up
There haven’t been many, if any, Patriots games over the last 20 years in which coming up with a way they could win required a degree of wishful thinking. But this is a new Patriots world, and against teams of Baltimore’s quality, they can’t win on coaching and talent. They require good fortune, too.
To prevail, the Patriots will require some if not all of the following: an uncommon mistake or two by Jackson that leads to a defensive score for the Patriots (perhaps a J.C. Jackson interception for the fifth straight game); a relentless, effective running game — one preferably that gives Damien Harris more carries than Rex Burkhead — to keep Jackson and the Ravens' offense on the sideline for long stretches; and a statistical performance from Newton similar if not superior to his line from the win over the Jets (27 of 35, 274 yards, two rushing touchdowns).
Is it a lot to ask? Absolutely. Is it possible? After watching the Patriots struggle to beat the winless Jets Monday, I do not believe it is.
The Ravens beat the Patriots thoroughly in Week 9 last season, proving they were the superior team. They should beat the Patriots thoroughly in Week 10 this year to confirm how wide the divide between the teams has become. Ravens 34, Patriots 13.