Welcome to Season 11, Episode 3 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
The initial inclination is to suggest that any supposed rivalry between the Patriots and Ravens must at the least be acknowledged as lopsided. After all, the Patriots have won 9 of 11 regular-season meetings with Baltimore, including their most recent matchup in Week 10 of the 2020 season, a 23-17 Patriots win in rainy Foxborough.
But if we’re telling the whole truth, it probably is a rivalry, inasmuch as the Patriots have actually had a rival other than Peyton Manning over the last 20-plus years. The Ravens have split four playoff matchups with the Patriots, bouncing the miserable 2009 Patriots from the wild-card round, and knocking them off in the 2012 AFC Championship game, avenging the Patriots’ win the previous year.
The Patriots’ last playoff win over the Ravens is one of the most thrilling victories of their dynasty decades, when they rallied from a pair of two-touchdown deficits to prevail in the 2014 AFC divisional round, 35-31. The Patriots needed every clever concept they could conjure from their playbook and the rulebook to win that one. I bet the thought of it still gives Ravens coach John Harbaugh the urge to dropkick the Gatorade bucket.
Now, the Ravens come to Gillette Stadium Sunday trying to spoil the Patriots’ home opener and forget about their own debacle a week ago, when they blew a three-score lead and lost to the Dolphins, 42-38.
As usual, the No. 1 priority is neutralizing quarterback Lamar Jackson, a dazzling runner — he had a 79-yard touchdown scamper against the Dolphins — and improving passer. Jackson has thrown for 531 yards and six touchdowns with just one interception through two games.
Jackson has bet on himself this year, turning down a contract offer before the start of the season believed to be worth $250 million. The Patriots can’t allow his price to go up on Sunday.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this thing started …
Three players to watch other than the quarterbacks
Rashod Bateman: It was under consideration to go with Mark Andrews, Jackson’s most trusted ally in the passing game, in this spot. The fifth-year tight end is one of the best at his position in the league and posted a nine-catch, 104-yard, one-touchdown performance in the shootout with the Dolphins. But the Patriots, contrary to my recollections, have done a nice job on him in the past. My memory claimed he was a nuisance in the Ravens’ win in 2019, but the stat sheet says he had just two catches for 21 yards. In the Patriots’ win in 2020, he was more involved, with seven catches for 61 yards. But if you’re going to claim he’s Gronk-like when he plays the Patriots, I’m going to assume you mean Dan Gronkowski. That was a long way of saying let’s acknowledge one of Jackson’s newer weapons instead in Bateman, the No. 27 overall pick in the 2021 draft who has followed a promising rookie year (46-515-1 in 12 games) with a spectacular start to 2022. Bateman has a touchdown in each of the first two games, and he’s averaging a Stanley Morgan-like 27.8 yards per catch on six receptions. The Patriots’ pass defense has been steady (ninth, 197 yards per game), but this is the first season since the Sterling Moore days that the Patriots haven’t had a lockdown/ballhawk cornerback.
Cole Strange: In the 17-14 win over the Steelers last Sunday, the Patriots secured their victory by possessing the ball for the final 6 minutes 33 seconds. During that stretch, Patriots running backs carried the ball eight times for 49 yards. Five of those carries were to the left side or up the middle, gaining 39 yards, including a 16-yard burst by Damien Harris. It’s extremely impressive that Strange, the Patriots’ surprising first-round pick in this year’s draft, was a driving force between left tackle Trent Brown and center David Andrews in the decisive moments of pretty close to a must-win game, often neutralizing three-time All-Pro Cameron Heyward. Another tough challenge awaits Sunday against the Ravens’ eighth-ranked run defense (84 yards per game), but I think Patriots fans are going to end up grateful that Bill Belichick drafted this guy.
Jabrill Peppers: The initial hope was to pencil Kyle Dugger’s name into this spot. Two years ago against the Ravens, in his first career start, Dugger was spectacular, shadowing Jackson, making 12 tackles, and nearly forcing a fumble. But the Patriots’ super-athletic safety was knocked from the Steelers game last Sunday with a knee injury, and he did not participate in practice Thursday or Friday, per the Patriots’ injury report. So, the next man up is Peppers, the versatile sixth-year defensive back and former Michigan star who joined the Patriots in the offseason after three years with the Giants. Peppers acquitted himself well after Dugger departed the Steelers game, making two outstanding tackles in space among his three total tackles. If necessary, the 26-year-old has the athleticism to fill the Don’t Let Lamar Get Loose role Dugger handled so well two seasons ago.
Grievance of the week
As electrifying and often excellent as Jackson has been as an NFL quarterback since he entered the league — he sparked the Ravens to a 6-1 record in seven starts as a rookie in 2018 — I’m all right with the Patriots passing on him twice in the first round that year. The Patriots had a decent quarterback at the time, one who would lead them to a sixth Super Bowl victory that season, and even though Tom Brady was 41 at the time, the end — with the Patriots and of his career — did not appear to be near. Drafting Jackson would have been fun and probably fulfilling, but it would have required an extensive makeover of their offensive philosophy once he succeeded Brady, and the Patriots did need players who would immediately help a contending roster at the time.
So, no, the grievance is not that they passed on two opportunities to take Jackson. The gripe here is in the mediocre outcome the Patriots got from the two picks. At No. 23, the Patriots took Georgia tackle Isaiah Wynn. He hardly qualifies as a bust, but he’s been injury-plagued — he missed his rookie season with a foot injury, and has played more than 10 games in a season just once. And this season, he’s been switched from left tackle to right, which is not exactly an endorsement of how effectively he protected Mac Jones’s blind side last year.
Eight picks later, at No. 31, the Patriots drafted Wynn’s college teammate, running back Sony Michel. I suppose he probably does count as a bust since he didn’t get a second contract and is now with the Chargers, his fourth team. But he did do his job well in the 2018 postseason, running for 336 yards and six touchdowns in three games. He earned his first Super Bowl ring. But he was never as explosive in the NFL as he was at Georgia, and it remains perplexing why the Patriots took him over Bulldogs teammate Nick Chubb, who went four picks later to the Browns.
The Patriots took a pair of just-OK players with their two firsts in 2018. I’m not big on those They Could Have Had This Guy hindsight games, but Chubb and three-time All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard, who went No. 36 to the Colts, were among the players the Patriots could have had in that range. And we won’t even get into taking Florida cornerback Duke Dawson in the second round.
Prediction, or Art Modell should never be elected to the Hall of Fame
Normally, with so little data to go on two games into the season, I’d appreciate that the Patriots and Ravens already have had a common opponent. But in this case, that doesn’t help much, either. The Ravens dropped 38 points on the Dolphins last Sunday, but their defense coughed up 42. Two weeks ago, the Patriots managed just 7 points against Miami, but the Dolphins scored just 20, and seven of those were the direct responsibility of the Patriots’ offense. Two wildly different games against the same opponent can’t lead to any concrete conclusions. But I do know this: Jones needs to do the things he usually does well much better than he did last week. He needs to be accurate, and he needs to stop throwing into double-teams. Maybe this will be his breakout game — hey, no one expected Tua Tagovailoa to throw for 469 yards and six touchdowns against the Ravens last Sunday. But against Jackson and a Ravens team raging from blowing a 35-14 late-third-quarter lead last Sunday, I’m not sure that even Jones’s best performance of the season will be enough. Ravens 27, Patriots 13.