In the words of Julian Edelman: “If you like football, this is a game to watch.”
Here’s what we’ll be watching for as the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens square off this week on “Sunday Night Football”:
Time: Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET
Location: M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore
The 8-0 Patriots forced turnovers on three consecutive plays and sacked Baker Mayfield five times in a 27-13 win over the Cleveland Browns.
The 5-2 Ravens are coming off their bye week. In their most recent game, they beat the Seahawks 30-16 in Seattle behind two defensive touchdowns and 116 rushing yards by quarterback Lamar Jackson.
The Patriots are pegged as three-point road favorites, their smallest line of the season to date. New England is 6-2 against the spread this season. Baltimore is 2-5 ATS.
Pats-Ravens was one of the NFL’s most heated rivalries in the early 2010s, but this will be the team’s first meeting since 2016 and the first in Baltimore since 2013.
Eight Patriots players are listed as questionable, including running back James White, who was added to the injury report Friday:
RB Rex Burkhead, Foot
S Patrick Chung, Heel/Chest
WR Julian Edelman, Chest/Shoulder
TE Ryan Izzo, Concussion
TE Matt LaCosse, Knee
G Shaq Mason, Ankle
WR Gunner Olszewski, Ankle/Hamstring
RB James White, Toe
Unless the Patriots plan to enter this game with Ben Watson as their only available tight end, it’s likely Izzo and/or LaCosse will be active after both missed the last two contests. If Mason is sidelined for a second straight week, expect James Ferentz to again get the nod at right guard.
Over on the Ravens’ side, the status of rookie wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown bears monitoring after Brown missed the last two games and did not practice Friday. Head coach John Harbaugh said he expects Brown to play, however. Ditto for cornerback Jimmy Smith, who’s missed the last six games with a knee injury.
Brown and Smith are among seven Ravens players officially listed as questionable:
WR Marquise Brown, Ankle/Thigh
CB Maurice Canady, Thigh
S Bennett Jackson, Ankle
G Patrick Mekari, Back
LB Patrick Onwuasor, Ankle
CB Jimmy Smith, Knee
S Earl Thomas, Knee
PLAYERS TO WATCH
N’Keal Harry, Patriots wide receiver
We could finally see the Patriots’ top 2019 draft pick take the field this weekend. Harry, who spent the first eight weeks on injured reserve after going down with a hamstring injury in New England’s preseason opener, is eligible to make his regular-season NFL debut against Baltimore, though the Patriots have yet to officially add him to their roster.
If they do, expect them to ease the big-bodied Arizona State product into their offense. Harry should see snaps in Josh Gordon’s old “X” receiver spot and will be an asset in red-zone situations, where his rare contested-catch ability could help boost a unit that’s found the end zone on just 50 percent of its trips inside the 20-yard line this season (NFL rank: 23rd).
Lamar Jackson, Ravens quarterback
Baltimore boasts the NFL’s best rushing offense, and Jackson is its catalyst. Dangerous on both designed runs and impromptu scrambles, the second-year pro ranks 10th among all NFL rushers in yards (576) and first in yards per carry (6.9) this season.
“He’s a major problem, and everybody’s had trouble with him,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “It’ll be a big challenge for us. Yeah, he can do it all. He can run, he can throw, can throw on the run, can extend plays. He’s tough.”
Containing Jackson on third down will be particularly important for the Patriots. He’s averaging 9.0 yards per carry with a 62 percent conversion rate on a league-high 21 third-down rushing attempts.
The Patriots are 14-0 against second-year quarterbacks since 2013 and 3-0 this season, holding Josh Allen, Sam Darnold and Mayfield to one total touchdown and eight interceptions.
Jonathan Jones, Patriots cornerback
A popular strategy for defending mobile quarterbacks like Jackson is utilizing a QB spy — a player tasked with keying in on the quarterback to prevent him from scrambling. The Patriots have employed this tactic against the likes of Allen, Deshaun Watson and Marcus Mariota in the past.
The problem with Jackson is his speed. QB spies typically are linebackers, and even the fastest players at that position simply can’t keep up with Jackson in the open field.
“I don’t think there’s probably a defensive front-seven player in the league that’s as fast as Jackson,” Belichick said Friday on SiriusXM NFL Radio.
One unconventional idea that’s been bandied about this week would be to use the speedy Jones, who’s played both slot corner and safety for the Patriots this season, in the spy role against Jackson. Jones showed off his rare speed last week by chasing Browns running back Nick Chubb down from behind and forcing a fumble 50 yards downfield.
Even if the fourth-year pro doesn’t shift responsibilities in this game, he still should play a major role in New England’s defensive game plan. Jones ranks sixth among Patriots defenders in snaps played this season as enters Week 9 as Pro Football Focus’s second-highest graded cornerback.
Mark Andrews, Ravens tight end
When Jackson does pass, he often looks to his tight end trio of Andrews, Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle, who have been on the receiving end of 92 of the QB’s 215 targets this season. Andrews leads that group — and all Ravens pass-catchers — with 36 catches on 55 targets for 449 yards and three touchdowns, including two 100-plus-yard efforts and another 99-yard performance.
“Andrews is an excellent receiver,” Belichick said. “He’s their top target on third down. He’s got the most production of any receiver, but they have a good receiving group overall, tight ends as well as receivers. But he’s big, he’s athletic, he has very good hands, he catches the ball well, he’s got good instincts.”
Baltimore’s offense is heavily reliant on multi-tight end sets, utilizing 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) at the fifth-lowest rate in the NFL (50 percent), per Sharp Football Stats. (Five of the Patriots’ first seven opponents are at 68 percent or higher.)
The Ravens have used two or three tight ends on 205 of their 494 offensive snaps this season.
Nick Folk, Patriots kicker
The Patriots are on kicker No. 3 after giving Mike Nugent the boot this week. Like Nugent, the 34-year-old Folk has extensive NFL experience, but he hasn’t kicked in the league since Week 5 of the 2017 season, when he missed three field goals for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a loss to New England. Folk was last seen in the now-defunct Alliance of American Football, which Belichick dismissively called “the World League” this week.
It’s worth noting, though, that Folk showed solid range during his AAF stint, going 4-for-5 on kicks longer than 50 yards with makes from 53, 53, 54 and 55. Perhaps the Patriots, who passed up seven field-goal attempts between 37 and 53 yards with Nugent as their kicker and never let him attempt one beyond 40, will have more confidence in the new guy.
Earl Thomas, Ravens safety
The Ravens lost perennial Pro Bowler Eric Weddle this past offseason but added one of the best safeties in the game in Thomas, who’s back to full health after breaking his leg midway through his tumultuous final season in Seattle. Belichick this week called Thomas “an outstanding player” and “one of the most instinctive players in the league.”
“He plays the defense — he’s a very good player — but he also can anticipate and react very quickly and make plays that probably most other guys in the league couldn’t make playing that position,” Belichick said.
Thomas leads a secondary that also features Smith and recently acquired cornerback Marcus Peters, who had a pick-six against the Seahawks in his Ravens debut.
Thumbnail photo via Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports Images