The Patriots are undefeated and boast one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time with Tom Brady as well as the best defensive unit in the entire league this year. Add to that head-coach, Bill Belichick and the staff he puts into the organization and surely you have this year's Super Bowl winners, right?
As we enter the second half of the season, all roads have led toward a February showdown in Miami for New England but the majority of their wins this year have come against the NFL’s poorer teams. Their only real scare has been against the Buffalo Bills who built their side on defensive strength. The offensive line may be the biggest weakness in the Patriots of 2019.
This coming Sunday evening, we observe the Prime Time match-up in Baltimore against the high-flying Ravens. If the Patriots are excelling on the defensive side of the ball, then Baltimore, led by second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson is excelling offensively.
The Ravens will have looked at the space Cleveland running back Nick Chubb was able to find against the Pats last weekend as a blueprint to get the better of them. Chubb carried the ball for 131 yards. The Ravens boast two of the league’s leading rushers this season who will both present a distinct challenge to this New England defense. Mark Ingram has averaged nearly 70 yards per game which will trouble Belichick going into the game but perhaps even more so, quarterback, Lamar Jackson is averaging over 80 yards per game from his position behind center.
Devising a way to stop both might prove to be the key between remaining undefeated and suffering that first defeat. However, the Ravens will still need to forge a way to stop Brady from metronomically finding his teammates. The Ravens are currently a top 10 defense against the pass this season but they have returned far too few sacks for a team with real title ambitions. Putting pressure on TB12 will be key for the Ravens who can’t rely solely on out-rushing and out-scoring their opponents this week.
The planners all knew what they were doing in scheduling this one for Prime Time. Whoever wins this one will feel confident moving on to win again. Both teams look good facing off again in the play-offs and could well be the AFC championship match-up.
The Dark Horse Derby
If the Patriots at the Ravens is a potential warm-up to a title game next winter then this one between Kansas City and Minnesota is another. Yes, that’s a wild bit of speculation at this stage of the season but if you like a dark horse showdown, this is the one for you.
Perhaps calling the Chiefs who have been an AFC favorite for well over a season now is a bit disingenuous. Standing at 5-3 and missing star quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs are not quite the force they may have been in the past. Nonetheless, they will still manage to take the AFC West title.
The Vikings find themselves at 6-2, a game behind NFC North leaders, Green Bay who beat the Chiefs last week. The Vikings, despite the possibility of going into the playoffs as a wild card in a stacked NFC race, are one of the most balanced sides in the league. Offensively they may not boast a Mahomes-like figure in Kirk Cousins. Cousins does, however, have leading rusher Dalvin Cook by his side to gain the hard yards along with receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen to throw to. When Kansas City is up against them, trying to stop one will leave the other open. This is unless of course, they pressure Cousins which, for a defense who has recorded the fifth-highest amount of sacks this year, is a real target.
On the other side, things will go down to the wire regarding whether or not Mahomes returns from injury. If so, he will need to be at his mobile best against Vikings defense who is right behind the Chiefs in sacks made and currently rank third in the league against a passing offense.
It’s a good looking week of action and this one could be another blockbuster. Both will be in the playoff picture in the New Year where anything could happen on any given Sunday. Could this be a prelude to another match-up in February? Stranger things have happened.
Running on Empty
Eight games down and very few people would have predicted this game would be between the Philadelphia Eagles with a 4-4 record and the Bears with a record of 3-4.
The Bears come into this one on a three-game losing streak. The Eagles welcome Chicago to Philadelphia after what was their best showing of the year in a 31-13 win against Buffalo.
Both teams have suffered similar offensive issues this year with defense, particularly for the Bears, proving relatively strong. For the Bears, moving the sticks has been like drawing blood from a stone at times with quarterback, Mitch Trubisky putting himself squarely in the firing line with his inability to move his offense. Eagles quarterback, Carson Wentz hasn’t been the problem offensively in Philadelphia. He is a talented player but too many fumbles and dropped catches, along with missed opportunities have been costly.
It wasn’t a huge surprise last weekend that both teams turned to a running game rather than the passing games that have stalled. The problem is that this week, both teams will come up against defenses that swallow up the run with ease while the Eagles face further problems getting through the Bears' defense who rank 5th against the pass.
It leaves both coaches with a head-scratcher as they try and get a much-needed win on Sunday. Ultimately, this one will come down to offensive quality as much as it will be about how well the defense plays. Khalil Mack and the Bears' defense should be good enough to keep an offense within touching distance. Trubisky has yet to deliver. Wentz, on the other hand, will always make a handful of plays with the potential to make a difference. If these plays stick on Sunday, it will provide the edge for Philadelphia who still has a good chance of taking the NFC East ahead of Dallas. If the Bears take another loss, it will come to a Winter addressing the quarterback-shaped elephant in the room.
Last Orders in London
The final game of this year's International Series will see Jacksonville host AFC South rivals, the Houston Texans, in London.
Both teams find themselves behind Indianapolis in the division, however, they can still have playoff aspirations in a division that has gone from one of the leagues least interesting to one of the most. The Texans sit at 5-3, just a game behind the Colts. A win here would keep them in the hunt for the divisional title with the Colts likely to stay a game ahead. For a team that boasts the talents of Deshaun Watson at quarterback, the playoffs must be the target for the Texans
For Jacksonville, everything seems to be a pleasant surprise. First, there was the evolution of Gardner Minshew from 6th round afterthought to potential long-term starter at quarterback. Now there is a 4-4 record with a realistic chance of a wild card berth.
The pressure will all be on Houston for this one. This is a position the Jaguars like to find themselves in - their backs against the wall and ready to pounce. The Jags are also used to the conditions that they will face in London but Watson is a big-time player that can perform in the face of adversity. Watson has had to scramble and make plays in tough situations this year due to his offensive line falling in around him. This will please a Jaguars pass rush slowly getting back to their ‘Sacksonville’ best.
It’s a big game and will certainly be entertaining. You would imagine the Texans will just about edge. Lucky London!
Back in Believeland
When you sign a player like Odell Beckham Jr. in the off-season and team him with receiver Jarvis Landry, you are making a big statement to the league. This statement says, "We believe in our offense, we believe in our passing game, and we believe in Baker Mayfield the quarterback."
Despite the talent at the Browns’ disposal, the fans are still waiting for something good to happen with their team. It all looked so good in the off-season. They had a promising rookie quarterback entering his second year along with OBJ and Landry to throw to, Nick Chubb to run the ball, and Myles Garrett stopping the opposition in defense. But as Mayfield defined the term, “sophomore slump” this term, having thrown the league's most interceptions so far, the Browns are 31st of the 32 teams in passes completed.
In short, things can only get better for a roster with that much talent. Or can it get worse? After all, this is the Cleveland Browns. They face the Denver Broncos who fell to a last-minute field goal against Indianapolis last Sunday and tore through their offensive line to record 4 sacks. This is something that will pressure Mayfield further. The Broncos are well within the NFL’s top 10 defenses against a passing offense which points to another frustrating evening for OBJ.
Not for the first time, the charge will need to be led by Chubb’s ability to run the ball. The Broncos will be looking to do the same in return with the Browns being among the league's worst defenses against the run.
For all the above, this is a game that could be easily won if Mayfield can arrest his slump. Both Beckham Jr. and Landry have the service they need to turn the scoreboard over but that task might again fall to Chubb and field goals. The Browns, however, still have one ace up their sleeve which they hope to give them the edge. The Broncos have an offensive line that seems to collapse almost at will. In addition, the Broncos will head into the game with a backup quarterback, Brandon Allen, deputizing for the injured Joe Flacco.
Myles Garrett will be watching on all week, like a lion in tall grass, waiting to pounce on that weak wildebeest at the back of the pack. It could get ugly at the Mile High with Garrett feasting on his prey. If there isn’t much else to believe in offensively for Cleveland, they can believe that.
Contributing Author - Rees Dale