The 3-5 Patriots return to Foxborough for a Sunday Night Football matchup against the 6-2 Baltimore Ravens. Coming off a tough win over the Jets, the Patriots playoff hopes are hanging by a thread and they now face the unenviable task of taking on one of their toughest rivals in the AFC.
Last season, the Patriots saw their 9-0 start go down in flames as Lamar Jackson and his offense raced out to a 17-0 lead, in what was ultimately a 37-20 win. The Pats were never the same after that loss and are 7-9 since then.
Now, with a far different team than the one the Ravens steamrolled in 2019, the Patriots will try to flip the script on what's happened since then. Any chance they have left of making the playoffs depends on pulling off the upset but the Ravens have all the pieces on paper to exploit the Patriots weaknesses.
What do the Patriots have to do to get a win? Here are this week's Keys to the Game presented by Carmax!
Big Plays – Stop Them
Though Baltimore isn't ripping off big plays this season like they were in 2019, they're still an extremely dangerous offense, ranking second in the league with the second-most big play rushes (more than 10 yards) in the league, while the Pats rank 17th in the NFL in explosive rushes allowed.
This is not a favorable matchup for a Patriots run defense that has been shorthanded in recent weeks, especially up front, where turnover from last season and opt-outs had already hit them hard. With double-digit players on the injury report, there are big questions as to who will be available and how effective they can be against the physical Ravens attack.
More concerning is that recently it’s been through the air that the Patriots defense have been giving up big plays and the Ravens have the speed merchants like Hollywood Brown to replicate the big plays the Jets were able to create last week.
Whether by ground or air, there is no quicker route to defeat than allowing the Ravens to make explosive plays and, given what we've seen out of the Patriots defensive front, they'll need their best effort of the season to contain their potent attack.
Big Plays – Make Them
The Patriots executed their cleanest and most consistent offensive game of the season against the Jets, but they're lacking the kind of chunk plays that could be needed to keep pace with the Ravens.
Most telling? The Pats are third in plays-per-drive and fourth in time-of-possession-per-drive, but 25th in points-per-drive. They're running a ton of plays but it's not translating to enough points to match the league's best offenses.
The physical Ravens defense is the best against the run in the league according to Football Outsiders and has allowed the second-fewest explosive passing plays (>20 yards). There's no obvious weakness to attack, so the Patriots must rely on their strength, the ground game, to produce against the Ravens defensive strength, stopping the run. Consistency is one thing, but creating big plays on the ground will be the biggest boost the Pats offense could ask for.
The Patriots have produced some explosive runs this season, especially in recent weeks. For the season they rank eighth in the NFL with 30 rushes of 10 yards-or-more. They'll need to find a way to add on to this total if they're to get in control of this game.
The Ravens defense is too good to expect that the Patriots offense can consistently put together long, extended drives of multiple plays over the course of the game. They have to find a way to pick up some chunk yardage.
Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch ahead of the Patriots matchup against the Baltimore Ravens.
Get to Third Down
This game will likely be decided by the team that has the most success on first and second down. The Patriots are one of the worst teams defensively in the league on early downs, ranked 30th on first down and 30th on second down in DVOA.
However, when the Patriots get to third down they're ranked fifth in the league. If they can win on first and second down consistently, they'll put the Ravens' 14th-ranked third-down offense to the test.
The Patriots run defense has been hit hard by injuries in recent weeks but could get a boost against the Ravens if Lawrence Guy returns and Carl Davis is able to build on a notable debut as a nose tackle. Davis could give the run defense just the boost it needs if he plays well.
The run defense was better against the Jets, but the Ravens are a much bigger threat.
"These guys run the ball as well as anybody in the league, so we'll definitely get tested here," said Bill Belichick this week. "It was certainly better [against the Jets] than what it's been in the last couple weeks. So, that was a good thing to say. Hopefully, we can continue that."
If they're to have any chance against the Ravens it's a clear key – keep their run game contained on early downs and get to third down, where the Patriots defense is at its best and the Ravens offense is average.
The Patriots got their first offensive points in the first quarter this season against the Jets and they must build on that against the Ravens. Last year, Baltimore raced out to a 17-0 lead that set the tone. The Pats still made a game of it, but no one is tougher to beat when the game is going their way than the Ravens.
In Baltimore's two losses this season, both Kansas City and Pittsburgh were able to take the lead or keep it close early on. In the Ravens most dominant wins, they put the hammer down right out of the gate and, for the most part, could coast from there.
The Ravens are still capable of winning a tight game, as evidenced by last week's game against the Colts, but spotting them a lead makes a comeback extremely tough. Exploiting their defense, which ranks in the top-10 in efficiency in the first half might be a tougher task than containing the Ravens offense, which ranks in the low 20s.
Either way, the Patriots need a fast start, whether it's forcing a three-and-out or a long first scoring drive, the tenor of the entire game will likely be determined in the first 15 minutes.
The Ravens match up perfectly with the Patriots weaknesses and pose the biggest challenge New England will see all season. The Pats injuries are an x-factor, as getting healthy on defense could change their dynamic at the most critical spot, the front seven, but will it be enough?
There is a path to beat the Ravens but it's extremely narrow with little margin for error and would rely on a sloppy turnover-laden game from Baltimore. Do the Patriots have that kind of perfect season-changing game in them? It's a lot to expect.
Ravens 24, Patriots 13