Instant analysis from the Patriots' 23-17 win over the Ravens:
⋅ Don’t look now, but here come the 4-5 Patriots. After weeks of criticism of the roster, the coaching, and Cam Newton, the Patriots are getting healthy, they’re having regular weeks of practice, and they are finding their identities on offense and defense.
The Ravens had much more talent on paper, but the Patriots are improving at a significant rate. The offense was efficient, finished drives, and dominated the line of scrimmage. The defense was disciplined, opportunistic, and kept Lamar Jackson in check all night. And the Patriots handled the torrential downpours, while the Ravens self-destructed with two untimely fumbled snaps.
The Patriots still have the same roster deficiencies that plagued them the first eight games of the season, and they are still only 10th in the AFC. But they have been getting noticeably better the last few weeks, and the seventh playoff spot is back within view.
⋅ It would have been nice to see the offense close the game better, instead of punting three times in the fourth quarter, but this was still an excellent night for Josh McDaniels. After punting on the opening drive, the Patriots went 75 yards for a touchdown on each of their next three full drives for the lead. This, against a Ravens defense that entered allowing the fewest points in the NFL (17.8 per game).
But the Ravens actually have struggled against the run this year, ranking 20th in yards per carry (4.5). With Calais Campbell out injured, McDaniels ran the ball right at them, rushing 38 times for 174 yards (4.6 average) before a final kneel-down.
McDaniels also didn’t ask Newton to do too much in the rain, with Newton completing 13-of-17 passes for 118 yards, a touchdown, and a sack. Newton hit most of the plays that he needed to and managed the game well, picking up a few key first downs late.
McDaniels also went back to the double-pass well again, but it worked this time because he had never called it before for Jakobi Meyers, a former high school quarterback. Meyers hit Rex Burkhead for a 24-yard touchdown, the Patriots' longest offensive touchdown of the season.
⋅ The defense built off its second-half dominance over the Jets with an impressive wire-to-wire performance. It wasn’t all dominant, as the Ravens churned out three clock-killing drives and let Jackson make some big plays to his receivers. But the run defense, aided by the return of Lawrence Guy from injury, was outstanding against the No. 3-ranked run offense. They held the Ravens to 115 yards as a team (4.1 average) and Jackson to 55, and only let him break one time in the fourth quarter for an 11-yard scramble. John Simon, who had five tackles and a sack, was outstanding on the edge.
⋅ Burkhead had another great night. He caught two touchdowns, gained 66 yards on 10 touches, and made the little plays, like picking up a tough 9 yards on second-and-10 in the fourth quarter to help extend a drive.
Burkhead has been the Patriots' non-QB offensive player of the year. He has six touchdowns, the only player other than Newton with more than one. And Burkhead, who has struggled with injuries in the past, has shown great durability, playing in all nine games.
⋅ Sony Michel should Google the name Wally Pipp, because Michel shouldn’t get his job back from Harris whenever he returns from injured reserve. Harris rushed for 121 yards on a 5.5-yard average despite facing a stacked defensive box for much of the night. Harris also busted one for 25 yards right up the middle.
Harris is much harder and more decisive than Michel, and picks up the tough yards between the tackles. He’s a great building block for the offense.
⋅ The offensive line deserves many props, of course, as Harris certainly didn’t pick up all of those yards himself. The pass rush wasn’t tested too much, but it mostly held up, other than rookie right tackle Michael Onwenu allowing one sack to Matt Judon.
⋅ Perhaps Bill Belichick is tired of hearing the criticism about his draft picks, because the 2019 and 2020 draft classes had maybe their best collective game ever on Sunday night. From the 2019 class, Harris had his third 100-yard game in six this year. Meyers was the only wide receiver Newton looked at all night, catching five passes for 59 yards. And Chase Winovich is officially out of the doghouse, playing 63 of 64 snaps and finishing with eight tackles.
From this year’s rookie class, second-round safety Kyle Dugger had his first significant game of the season, playing 54 snaps and finishing with a team-high 12 tackles. And second-round linebacker Josh Uche, playing in just his third game, picked up his first NFL sack in the second quarter.
It’s good to see the youngsters giving meaningful contributions, and most importantly, they are learning what it takes to win games. Of course, the Patriots still need to get N’Keal Harry going; he had zero targets in his first game back from a concussion. But this year should be all about getting young players some meaningful experience, and a game like Sunday night — beating a good Ravens team while fighting through horrific weather conditions — is a great start.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.