Bill Belichick's coaching philosophy is shaped around a quote from the book The Art of War that reads: Every battle is won before it is fought.
Living by this mantra is a big reason the longtime Patriots coach has won 300 career games, and his ability to stay ahead of the competition has certainly been on display in 2019. Belichick directs a defense that ranks as the league's best in several categories, including takeaways (25), third-down percentage (15.6), QB hits (57) and opposing passer rating (40.6). The most impressive thing about this unit is it has allowed just 7.6 points per game (!) through eight weeks.
However, the Patriots have yet to face Lamar Jackson. That'll change on Sunday night, when the Ravens host New England in prime time. So much of the Patriots' strength on defense is based on their knack for taking away the opponent's strength, but Jackson's unique skill set presents such a challenge that even a great week of prep might not be enough for Belichick this time.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has done an incredible job tailoring his game plan to Jackson's strengths. Roman has given him the freedom to use his legs with designed runs or scrambles. Jackson ranks 10th in the league in rush yards (576) heading into Week 9 -- well above running backs like Aaron Jones, Todd Gurley and Le'Veon Bell. Paired with Mark Ingram in the backfield, Jackson and the former Saints RB spearhead the league's top-ranked rushing attack (204.1 yards per game). To me, the Ravens' rush offense has the advantage over the run defense of the Patriots, whose strength on D is in the secondary. This season, the Pats are allowing the 12th-most yards per carry (4.6) and have given up 100-plus rushing yards three times (vs. the Browns, Redskins and Bills) with yards-per-carry marks of 7.23, 7.25 and 6.14 in those games, respectively.
The fact that the Patriots are using man coverage at the highest rate (62.4 percent) in the NFL this season also plays right into the Ravens' hands. Man coverage is more susceptible to giving up yardage on quarterback scrambles because defenders' eyes are on their assigned receivers instead of the QB. Jackson scrambles at a significantly higher rate in his career vs. man coverage (13.6 percent, highest in the NFL) than he does vs. zone coverage (8.1 percent), according to Pro Football Focus. He's had a ton of success doing so, with 14.3 yards per scramble vs. man in his career -- 7.2 yards per rush more than when he scrambles against zone coverage.
Baltimore ranks No. 1 in Next Gen Stats' rush success percentage (57.2) and has the seventh-lowest run stuff percentage (17.1) despite having the third-most attempts (258) in the league, while the Patriots rank 21st in run-stuff percentage (19.6). With that in mind, it would seem logical to consider moving an extra defender into the box to try to limit Baltimore's rushing attack, but that strategy opens up downfield passing opportunities for Jackson -- an area where he's shown improvement this season.
Now, that outstanding New England secondary I mentioned earlier will undoubtedly challenge Jackson to make tight-window throws, and Jackson must answer. The young signal-caller has made some great throws in 2019. Among his prettiest passes are four dime completions, an NGS metric that considers throws of 30-plus air yards and tight window percentage. Through eight weeks, Jackson has thrown more dimes than Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan, so he's not afraid to let it fly, especially with the addition of rookie speedster Marquise Brown. The receiver has battled injuries throughout the preseason and regular season but is on schedule to play this weekend -- a huge positive for Jackson, considering a third of his completed deep passes have been to Brown.
As you can see, it's not hard to see why Jackson and the Ravens could have the edge against Belichick's dominant defense. Now it's all about execution on game day. If Jackson can execute and refrain from committing turnovers -- remember, the Patriots are a takeaway machine -- Baltimore will have a real opportunity to knock off Goliath.
Each week in the 2019 campaign, former No. 1 overall pick and NFL Network analyst David Carr will take a look at all offensive players and rank his top 15. Rankings are based solely on this season's efforts. Now, let's get to it -- the Week 9 pecking order is below.
Wilson and Co. are 4-0 on the road this season after another impressive offensive performance in Atlanta. Though Aaron Rodgers and others are making a push, there's a reason Wilson remains the top offensive player. The Seahawks veteran has a better passer rating (115.5) and TD-to-INT ratio (17:1) than the last two MVPs did in their first eight games ( Patrick Mahomes in 2018, Tom Brady in 2017). Until Wilson's production begins to regularly decrease, he'll own this spot.
Robert Saleh's 49er defense was all over the Panthers -- Kyle Allen took seven sacks -- but McCaffrey found ways to be productive. With 117 rush yards and 38 receiving yards Sunday, McCaffrey has now hit 1,078 scrimmage yards for the season. His case for MVP is very much in play halfway through the season.
The Rodgers we've all been waiting for has returned. After a magnificent display against the Chiefs, the veteran has logged 300 pass yards and three-plus TDs with zero INTs in consecutive games for the first time since 2016. He's got the Packers in prime position (7-1) heading into the second half of the season, and it feels like they are just getting started.
The Vikings beat the Redskins by "running down their throats" with Cook and Alexander Mattison, helping Kirk Cousins notch his first Thursday Night Football win. Cook is having himself a career year with at least 120 scrimmage yards in six games (most in the NFL) after registering 171 total yards (98 rushing, 73 receiving) against Washington. The Vikings RB1 sits atop the rushing ranks midway through the season with the Chiefs up next.
Kittle's energy is contagious around the 49ers' offense. Did you see how ecstatic he was every time Tevin Coleman got in the end zone Sunday? It was pretty entertaining. Kittle finished the game with six receptions for 86 yards, but again, it's his blocking ability that is underappreciated. I feel like a broken record saying that, but it makes all the difference in Kyle Shanahan's rushing attack.
Brady has been a Steady Eddie this season, relying on the run game and the league's top-ranked defense. In Sunday's rainy victory over Cleveland, Brady sustained drives and sprinkled in a pair of touchdown passes to Julian Edelman.
Watson played well against a Raiders defense that struggled on the road, completing 27 of his 39 pass attempts for three TDs and a 115.2 passer rating, along with 10 carries for 46 yards. The dual-threat quarterback orchestrated a nice fourth-quarter comeback, which included going 3-for-3 for 29 yards and a 9-yard TD pass to Darren Fells after getting kicked in the eye (see the video above). That is the kind of toughness and play Houston needs from its franchise quarterback.
Heading into the Chiefs' bye week, Kelce leads all tight ends with 604 receiving yards this season. No surprise there, as he's ranked in the top two in receiving yards at the position since 2016.
Just like old friends, Thomas and Drew Brees picked up right where they left off in the quarterback's return. The Saints WR1 caught all 11 of his targets for 112 yards and a TD on the way to surpassing himself (in 2018) for the second-most receptions in the first eight games of a season (73) in the Super Bowl era, behind only Adam Thielen (74 receptions in 2018). With a bye in Week 9, the Saints could quite possibly have all of their offensive weapons back soon with sights set on a deep postseason run.
Like I mentioned above, Bill Belichick's defense is Jackson's next test. This is a huge game for the young dual-threat quarterback, and his performance could either catapult him into the thick of the MVP conversation or keep New England undefeated for another week.
Diggs has really turned it on in October. He has averaged more receiving yards per game since Week 4 (121.0) than he had total receiving yards in Weeks 1-3 (101). In the last three weeks specifically, Diggs has had at least 140 receiving yards per game, making his 453 receiving yards the most in a three-game span in franchise history -- topping several marks by Hall of Famer Randy Moss. Now Diggs just needs to hang on to that ball.
Kupp's 220-receiving yards on Sunday moved him into second among the NFL ranks in receiving yards this season (792) behind only Michael Thomas (875). He has emerged as the Rams' top player on offense over the first half of the season by catching everything that comes his way and almost always earning yards after the catch. He could be the spark the Rams need to work their way into the playoff picture.
Kudos to Brees for getting back on the field so soon after surgically repairing the thumb that he injured in Week 2. I had my concerns, but Sunday's outing against the Cardinals on Sunday answered every question. Brees completed 34 of his 43 pass attempts for 373 yards, three TDs, one INT and a 116.4 passer rating.
JUST OUTSIDE THE TOP 15
Tyreek Hill, WR, Chiefs: Hill has certainly made an impact in his return, but he has yet to reach 100 receiving yards in a game this season. Since returning from his shoulder injury in Week 6, he's averaged 4.7 catches and 76.7 receiving yards per game. His production should increase when Patrick Mahomes is back on the field.
Chris Godwin, WR, Buccaneers: Godwin had just four receptions (eight targets) for 43 yards in Sunday's loss to Tennessee. Though Mike Evans feasted on the Titans' secondary, I expected the Bucs' passing attack to be far better coming out of the bye week. Now that I think about it, I expected Jameis Winston to be better.
Julio Jones, WR, Falcons: With Matt Schaub under center on Sunday, Julio logged his first 150-yard receiving game since Week 4 of 2018. He always seems to play well against the Seahawks' defense, unlike many of his peers at the position, as he averages 122.3 receiving yards per game vs. Seattle in his career.
Kirk Cousins, QB, Vikings: Riding a dominant run game, Cousins played well enough to earn his first career win on Thursday Night Football after completing 23 of his 26 pass attempts for 285 yards and a 112.3 passer rating. The Vikings passer has improved statistically since Week 5, and he'll need to keep his high-level play up heading into a tough stretch of the schedule.