PRESTON: Patriots unbeaten but not unbeatable, and Ravens have chance in wide-open AFC
After a deeper study of the NFL during the Ravens’ midseason bye week, this opinion didn’t change: There are no elite teams in the AFC.
The New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers are clearly the top two teams in the NFC, but the AFC race is wide-open.
New England is undefeated at 8-0, but even with coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, the Patriots are beatable. They are the favorite to repeat as conference champions, but they aren’t intimidating.
The rest of the conference can be divided into two tiers: Terrible teams — such as the Miami Dolphins (0-6) and Cincinnati Bengals (0-8) — and mediocre or slightly above-average teams — such as the Ravens (5-2), Houston Texans (5-3), Buffalo Bills (5-2), Indianapolis Colts (5-2) and Kansas City Chiefs (5-3).
The Chiefs were in the same class with the Patriots at the beginning of the season, but that was because they had a healthy Patrick Mahomes at quarterback and a new defensive coordinator in Steve Spagnuolo, as well several other new defensive players.
Mahomes, the reigning league Most Valuable Player, will return soon, but the Chiefs defense won’t get better. They are 24th in the league in total defense, allowing 377 yards per game, and 30th against the run, allowing 145 rushing yards per game.
Run game key for Ravens: Out of the top teams in the AFC, only Houston and New England have had success stopping the run.
And running the ball is what the Ravens do best. They have the No. 1 rushing attack in the NFL, averaging 204.1 yards a game. That sounds so strange. It takes us back to the days before there were face masks and helmets were made of leather.
But running the ball, controlling the pace of the game and neutralizing highly efficient offenses, such as those in Kansas City and New England, can lead to success in the pass-happy NFL.
If the Ravens can rest their defense, they will be able to compete against mobile quarterbacks like Houston’s Deshaun Watson, Indianapolis’ Jacoby Brissett and Buffalo’s Josh Allen. And as long as the Ravens have Lamar Jackson as their quarterback, they have a chance against any team, anywhere.
Getting injured starters back: Another reason for optimism is that the Ravens are expected to get three injured starters back for Sunday night’s game against the Patriots, including cornerback Jimmy Smith, inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor and rookie receiver Marquise Brown.
Onwuasor will give the Ravens depth and a three-man rotation at inside linebacker. Brown, because of his speed and elusiveness, can open up the offense and turn short passes into big plays. On Monday, coach John Harbaugh seemed to be more excited by the return of Smith, who went down in the first quarter of the season opener with a knee sprain.
Every team has weaknesses: The Ravens had problems in the secondary early in the season but might have solved a lot of them with the recent addition of Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters. The Ravens still have other weaknesses. They need to generate a consistent pass rush and teams have been able to get pressure on Jackson up the middle of the offensive line.
But every team has weaknesses. The Colts have a good coach in Frank Reich, but they are allowing 111.3 rushing yards per game. Buffalo is allowing an average of 109.4 rushing yards, but the Philadelphia Eagles pushed the Bills around Sunday for 218 yards on the ground in a 31-13 win.
Plus, is Allen that much of a difference-maker? He is big and mobile, but unproven, and his top receiver is John Brown, a Ravens castoff who has 38 catches for 527 yards and two touchdowns this season.
Kansas City reminds me of the old Colts teams that had Peyton Manning at quarterback. The Colts were effective as long as they were ahead and could turn their pass rushers loose, but they struggled when teams got early leads and ran the ball in the second half.
Houston has had success stopping the run, but the Texans are 28th in pass defense, allowing 276.8 yards a game through the air. They also have lost defensive lineman J.J. Watt for the season with a torn pectoral muscle.
And then there are the Patriots. Brady is in a class by himself. He isn’t what he used to be, but his decision-making and foot speed in the pocket are excellent. He puts the ball in places where only his receiver can make the catch.
But the Patriots have a suspect offensive line and nobody fears their skill-position players on offense, especially at tight end. New England has a plus-17 turnover ratio, but the Patriots can’t sustain that unless they play the Cleveland Clowns every week.
Pats good, not great: In the past, I have learned not to bet against Belichick. He is the best, and it will be interesting to see what defense he comes up with to slow down Jackson. But the Patriots aren’t as dominant as their record indicates.
They’re good, but they aren’t great.
Now, we’ll find out if any other conference contender can close the gap.