By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — America sure is getting to see plenty of the New England Patriots this year, as Sunday night’s date with the Ravens will mark New England’s fourth prime-time game of the season and second in as many weeks.
The nation got to see the Patriots lose in Seattle (Week 2) and Kansas City (Week 4) before finally getting a late-night win over the Jets on Monday. Now comes a much stiffer test, as the 6-2 Ravens roll into Foxboro.
The Patriots enter as seven-point underdogs, a situation that hasn’t been the case for Bill Belichick’s team at home in a long, long time. Whether or not they can pull off the upset will be determined on Sunday evening. Here’s what we’ll be watching for.
Can The Defense Stop A Nose Bleed?
The Patriots’ run defense is bad. Very, very bad. Owing in large part to the free-agent departure of Danny Shelton and the COVID-19 opt-out of Dont’a Hightower, this year’s group is unrecognizable against the run.
The Patriots enter Week 10 ranked eighth-worst in rushing yards allowed per game (131.0). That number is actually an improvement, after the Jets rushed for just 65 yards on Monday night.
Suffice it to say, the Baltimore Ravens prevent a bit more of an issue than the New York Jets. Baltimore has the No. 1 rushing attack in the NFL, averaging 170 yards per game. Their 5.1-yard average per rush ranks third-best, and their 13 rushing touchdowns has them tied for second-most in the NFL.
The Patriots haven’t exactly handled good competition too well in this regard. They’ve held just three teams under 100 yards, with two of them (Dolphins, Jets) being in the bottom-third of the NFL for rushing. The other team — the Chiefs — ranks 16th in the league.
If the Ravens commit to running, the Patriots might simply not have the personnel to put up a fight.
Of course, the most dangerous man in that running game remains reigning MVP Lamar Jackson. Sure, his numbers are down from last year, but he’s still every bit the threat out of the backfield that he was last year.
You’ll surely remember that Jackson was a nightmare for the Patriots last year, when he was 17-for-23 for 163 yards and a touchdown through the air while rushing for 61 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries.
And that was against a Patriots defense that included the aforementioned Hightower and Shelton, plus Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Patrick Chung.
Between Jackson and Gus Edwards and Mark Ingram (if healthy) and J.K. Dobbins, there will be plenty of opportunities for the Ravens to run. But it figures to be No. 8 who will be the toughest to try to stop.
"Lamar Jackson was just flawless in the second half."
— NFL (@NFL) November 12, 2020
Jackson’s coming off a 19-for-23 passing day (for just 170 yards) vs. the Colts, in a game where he also ran for 58 yards and a touchdown.
The Cam Show
There have been a number of ups and downs in the Cam Newton Redemption Tour, but the 31-year-old quarterback has made it very clear that he has viewed this season as a great — and perhaps his final — chance to show the league that he’s still Cam.
And while Newton’s on pace to have one of his most productive rushing seasons, he’s going to need to get a bit more done with his arm in order to convince a team that he’s worth making the centerpiece of their offense. The past two weeks have been a step in the right direction. Against the Bills he was just 15-for-25 for 174 yards, but he didn’t throw any picks and he seemed to have eliminated much of the bad throws and indecision that left him looking lost in his previous two games. Last week against the Jets, he was outstanding, completing 27 of 35 passes for 274 yards.
But that … was against the Jets. And Newton’s other excellent passing game this year came in Seattle, where the Seahawks have a historically terrible defense.
Now in mid-November, Newton’s going to have to put together some impressive performances against teams that are actually good. This one, in prime-time, against a title contender, marks a good opportunity to capitalize on a whole lot of eyeballs focused squarely in on him.
The Patriots may not be a match of talent on paper with the Ravens. But the great equalizer, as always, could come from making plays that lead to turnovers.
The Ravens are 5-0 this year in games when they’ve won the turnover battle, and all three of the Patriots’ wins came in the only three games when they had more takeaways than giveaways. It’s hardly a revolutionary concept, but it figures to play an important role come Sunday night.
For the Patriots, look for J.C. Jackson to try to keep his utterly ridiculous interception streak going. It’s currently at four games, and he stands alone as the NFL’s interception leader with five.
Of course, the flip side of this matter from a Patriots perspective is the absolute need to protect the ball. Newton had his first turnover-free game since Week 1 last week, and the Patriots recovered their only fumble (which came on a failed fourth down, anyway). Carrying that ball security forward for this one is absolutely necessary, as giving Baltimore any extra possessions will likely be enough to turn a difficult challenge into an impossible one.