The Patriots travel to Baltimore on Sunday night to take on the 5-2 Ravens in a matchup of AFC rivals that should tell us a lot about two of the best teams in the NFL.
For the Patriots, it feels like this is one of the first real tests of the season and it's coming in early November. Yes, the Pats got a good challenge from a solid Bills team back in Week 4, but since then the games have lacked the juice that this one will have.
It will be on national television against a dynamic young quarterback who is electric every time he touches the ball. Lamar Jackson should give the vaunted Patriots defense a solid confrontation. He has speed and physicality all around him, making the Ravens a difficult team to prepare for.
The Patriots defense hasn't blinked yet this season. They're on pace to force 50 takeaways and are allowing a microscopic 7.6 points-per-game. But even the players admitted this week they haven't seen anyone quite like Jackson yet.
Add it all together and it's finally a hype-able football game that will tell us something about the 2019 Patriots after weeks of banal wins.
Let's dive into the Keys to the Starting Lineup for what New England needs to do to get to their bye week at 9-0.
Sorry Mr. Jackson, the Boogeymen are for real
Lamar Jackson is special. His speed is uncanny and he can avoid multiple tackles by inches and turn plays that should be dead in the backfield into 50-yard gains. And yes, he can throw too, but it's not like he's Peyton Manning who runs a 4.3. Never has a Patriots defense been better equipped to deal with this kind of threat. Just as the Ravens offense has a nice blend of size and speed, so too do the Boogeymen.
That's not to say Jackson won't make plays, but the Patriots will need an excellent plan to not only contain Jackson in the pocket but confuse him.
That's what the Patriots defense does best and what will take Jackson out of his comfort zone. Take away the easy first read with tight coverage then converge and finish the mobile quarterback inside the pocket. If he escapes, force him to escape into the teeth of the defense.
The game will be won or lost with how much Jackson is forced to throw into the Patriots secondary. And if New England continues forcing turnovers in bunches the game will be over.
Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 9 matchup against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, November 3, 2019.
This is (almost) the 2019 Patriots offense
With N'Keal Harry likely to make his debut and Isaiah Wynn back at practice, we're now locked in on the Patriots offense that they'll take to the playoffs. There will be no new impact additions via trade or returning from IR after this group, so that should give a sense of clarity and focus to the offense that they might've lacked earlier in the year.
It will still be three weeks before Wynn can return against the Cowboys, but after hopping right into a fully-padded practice on Wednesday, it would appear the Pats will have their starting left tackle back for the stretch run.
The Ravens defense is 13th in DVOA against the pass and 21st against the run. They're the fourth-best defense the Pats have faced this year, and while we can expect them to play well at home in a big game, the Patriots offense always makes their plays. It's just a question of how well they can string them together and if they can get any kind of production from the ground game.
With their top-three tight ends finally all at practice, Mohamed Sanu assimilating into the offense, Rex Burkhead knocking some rust off against the Browns and Harry adding a big outside presence, the weaponry is falling into place. And after eight weeks, the offensive line should be finding their stride and opening up more holes for Sony Michel.
The 15th-ranked Patriots offense needs to start clicking and they should finally feel like they know who they are and where they're headed.
Balancing size and speed, man and zone
The Ravens combination of size and speed on offense is their most impressive trait. It puts pressure on the Patriots to decide what kind of defensive personnel packages will be most useful. On early downs it's a question of a heavier or lighter front. Is it Adam Butler, Dietrich Wise or John Simon as the right defensive end? Because you're really facing two different running games and that's why the Ravens are averaging 204.1 rushing yards-per-game. Go light to counter Jackson? Or rotate heavy in potential Ingram situations?
How much does run stopper Elandon Roberts play? Or do they use their three-best linebackers in Collins-Hightower-Van Noy and go heavy on defensive backs? It's a lot to figure out and will be completely fluid from play-to-play.
Then there's the issue of playing man vs. zone. Play man and all your defensive backs are running with their receivers and not watching for when Jackson takes off. Play zone and you're getting away from one of your best strengths as a defense.
It's a delicate balance on both fronts and it will put a lot of pressure on whoever is running the defense these days. Finding the right mix at the right time will be critical, and even then there's sure to be plays made by the Ravens diverse offense.
Will Nick Folk matter?
The Patriots are on to their third kicker of the season, the first time they've used three kickers since 1983. In a close conference battle on the road this is the kind of game where your kicker could be needed. Is Nick Folk ready to step in after his stint in the AAF and make clutch kicks, perhaps from distance?
It can't be a position the Pats feel great about since Folk hasn't kicked in an NFL game since 2017. If it's a tight-scoring affair, New England could be at a disadvantage.
The Patriots are now entering the toughest part of their schedule, a five-game stretch where it seems likely that they'll have a flat game and drop one. It would appear with the receiving corps set and everyone getting healthy that they should consistently improve, especially after next week's bye, when the coaches will have a chance to get further tweak things toward their strengths.
If there was one takeaway from 2007, it's that a regular season loss can be a good thing and the loss for that team should've come in Baltimore against an unspectacular Ravens team en route to a 5-11 season. This could be a similar kind of game.
The Pats should hit their true trajectory after the bye week, but until Sanu gets fully involved and Wynn returns they're not on it just yet. Add in Tom Brady and Julian Edelman appearing on the injury report this week with new shoulder injuries and it seems like the signs are pointing to this being a road game in the first two months of the season that the Pats drop.
The Patriots defense will be stressed in a new way against the best running team in the league. Still, even if they give up some big plays on the ground, they should be holding the Ravens to field goals as space becomes more limited in the red zone.
But without multiple takeaways the Patriots offense could struggle without the benefit of short field and extended time of possession.
The rested Ravens come out, play a clean game and hand the Pats their first loss of the season, exposing the weaknesses that will need to be corrected as New England re-focuses on their march toward Miami in February.