The Baltimore Ravens are one win away from clinching the top seed in the AFC. They will clinch that spot with 13 wins because of the head-to-head tiebreaker they hold over the New England Patriots from when they defeated the Patriots 37-20 back in Week 9. Since that game, the Ravens have reeled off six more wins to improve to 10-0 over their last ten games. And the Patriots have lost two more games, including their first at home since October 1, 2017.
With Baltimore looking unbeatable and Tom Brady on the decline, the Patriots are going to enter the playoffs this season looking vulnerable, just like they did last season. But let’s not forget that New England was being ruled out last year, too, and we all know how that turned out.
Looking back at how the 2018 season unfolded
The Patriots strung together six straight wins in 2018 before losing to the Tennessee Titans 34-10 in Week 10, the week before their bye week. After coming out of their bye week with wins over the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings, the Patriots dropped back-to-back games in December on the road against the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers to fall to 9-5 on the season.
New England bounced back with home wins over the Buffalo Bills and the Jets, but despite earning the No. 2 seed in the AFC, the Patriots were not being looked at as a serious threat to win the Super Bowl. The Kansas City Chiefs with MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes looked like a much stronger threat, and the Chiefs would have home field in a potential AFC Championship Game. And over in the NFC, the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints both looked like major threats with 13-3 records.
But in the end, it was the Patriots who had the last laugh. New England beat the Los Angeles Chargers 41-28 at home, went on the road to beat the Chiefs 37-31 in overtime, and then completely shut down the Rams in a 13-3 win in Super Bowl LIII.
This year’s offense is worse, but defense is better
In 2018, the Patriots finished the regular season averaging 27.3 points, 266.1 passing yards, and 127.3 rushing yards per game. So far this season, New England is averaging 26 points, 258.2 passing yards, and 96.2 rushing yards per game. Interestingly enough, for as much negative press as Tom Brady’s decline has received, it could be argued that Sony Michel’s down year has had an even bigger negative impact on the offense.
Michel averaged 4.5 yards per carry in his rookie year last season, playing 13 games with 931 rushing yards on 209 rushing attempts. Through 13 games in 2019, Michel has only 653 rushing yards on 189 rushing attempts, averaging only 3.5 yards per carry.
But while both Brady and Michel have taken a step backward in 2019, the team’s defense has taken a big step forward. Last season, the Patriots allowed 359.1 total yards per game and 20.3 points per game. This year, New England ranks No. 1 in the NFL in both categories allowing only 264.8 yards and 12.9 points per game.
Rule out New England at your own peril
The Baltimore Ravens are clearly the team to beat this season, and they are deserving of their position as favorites to win Super Bowl LIV. But while New England has already lost to the Ravens once this season, the same result is far from a sure thing should the two teams meet again in the AFC Championship.
Since the Patriots last saw Lamar Jackson, two teams have had some success in slowing him down; the Buffalo Bills and the San Francisco 49ers, who both held the Ravens to 24 points and 20 points on offense, respectively. New England will be far better prepared for Jackson the next time these two teams square off.
What could make or break the Patriots this postseason is the play of Tom Brady. The 42-year-old has not been a difference-maker in 2019. But will opposing teams ever really feel comfortable playing against the greatest of all time, regardless of how the regular season played out?