Despite New England’s 23-17 win over Baltimore Sunday, the team still faces a steep incline when it comes to making the playoffs for a 12th straight season and 18th time in the last 20 years.
The Patriots are now 4-5, winners of two straight games but currently in 10th place in the AFC. The five teams directly in front of them in the standings are 6-3, fighting it out for three wild card spots in the expanded seven-team postseason field. Buffalo is 2 ½ games ahead of New England in the AFC East, with a win in hand over the Patriots, while Miami is among the teams muddled together at 6-3.
Both paths to the postseason are getting narrower by the week. But a loss to the Ravens, who are also 6-3, would’ve in all likelihood been the final nail in the coffin for New England in 2020; instead, it has the potential to be the springboard not only for a run towards the postseason, but for the moment in which, at long last, the Patriots’ young core identified itself.
New England didn’t merely cover the spread as a 7-point underdog, the largest such figure the team had been at home in 19 seasons at Gillette Stadium. It won outright. Kyle Dugger, the team’s much-maligned top draft choice from 2020 out of NCAA Division II Lenoir-Rhyne, led the team in tackles (12) in his first career start.
“It felt great and definitely was a blessing to be able to get out there and play with the guys,” Dugger said. “The energy was great and the win was great, so there are definitely no complaints tonight.”
The team won with Josh Uche, its second draft choice in April, registering his first career sack on Baltimore’s final drive of the first half to ensure the Patriots would maintain a lead heading into the locker room.
New England won with Damien Harris, a third-round draft choice in 2019, establishing a new career-high in rushing yards (121) for the third time in the last six games. Harris, who’s averaging 5.5 yards per carry on the season, is tied for fifth in the NFL and third among running backs.
“I am on cloud nine right now,” Harris said after the game. “That was a tough game in that kind of weather. Ever since I’ve been here, I’ve been hearing all these stories about New England weather around November, so I guess that was my first my first taste of it and I loved every second of it. I’m just super happy right now.”
The Patriots got it done with Jakobi Meyers, an undrafted free agent in 2019, leading the team in receiving for the fourth week in a row. True, a tick down from his 12-catch, 169-yard outing against the Jets six days earlier, but his five catches for 59 yards against the Ravens – not to mention his 24-yard touchdown pass to Rex Burkhead – were more than representative for a game in which New England only attempted 18 passes.
Meyers said Thursday his confidence has grown over the last few weeks, developing a rapport with Cam Newton that simply never came about with Tom Brady a season ago.
“It’s hard not to have a good relationship with Cam,” Meyers said.
Dare we say, he’s in the circle of trust?
New England beat the Ravens with Chase Winovich exhumed from the dog house, the 2019 third-round draft pick playing a career-high 65 snaps – just two weeks after playing five snaps against the Bills and still more than double his workload from the Jets game (31 snaps) six days earlier.
Rather than playing along the edge, Winovich took a more active role on the second level of the defense, seeing the majority of his snaps at inside linebacker.
“One thing about Chase, he’s always willing and ready to do whatever you ask him to do,” Bill Belichick said. “So, he learned the assignments on that and what to do and I thought he did a good job of it.”
J.C. Jackson, an undrafted free agent in 2018, had his league-leading sixth interception and subsequent Pro Bowl kerfuffle nipped in the bud.
Along the offensive line, 2018 top draft choice Isaiah Wynn turned in another clean sheet at left tackle, while 2020 sixth-round gem Mike Onwenu overcame an early sack allowed to help power the running game while manning right tackle in the second half. Wynn, it should be noted, has an excellent chance of becoming the first Patriots first-round draft choice to have his fifth-year option exercised since Dont’a Hightower, a 2012 pick.
Add it all up and for the first time all season – possibly longer – there is tangible evidence of young players trending in the right direction for the Patriots.
Harris exploding on the scene at running back casts the future of Sony Michel, who’s currently on injured reserve, in more doubt than ever before while the way Meyers is fully grasping the offense in a way N’Keal Harry at receiver hasn't is maddening. Michel and Harry were first-round draft picks in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
You'll also notice a young quarterback isn't among the reasons the Patriots knocked off the Ravens. Newton was good -- his 114.3 passer rating was his best in New England to date -- and while he's leaps and bounds better than Jarrett Stidham, a fourth-round pick in 2019, the Patriots should still be looking at young quarterbacks next spring.
Beggars can’t be choosers at this point, however, not when New England’s draft record from about 2014-17 is littered with disappointments.
Make no mistake, the jury remains out on the three most recent classes. It’s going to take far more than one game to prove that Belichick has rediscovered his mojo and that the middle part of the 2010s was an aberration, not what he’s become at the draft.
Even if only for a day, against a team in Baltimore that is simply stacked with talent all over its roster, it looked like a ray of light emerged from the literal rainstorm in Foxboro.