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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Rivalry with Ravens renewed on MNF

The Patriots prepare for a what should feel like a playoff game against the Ravens Monday night at Gillette Stadium.

Pressure bursts pipes. But it also forms diamonds.

What does that have to do with Monday night's primetime battle between the Patriots (10-2) and Ravens (7-5) at Gillette Stadium?

Well, according to Tom Brady, there is a clear urgency in the air in New England these days, one that's very much being emphasized by Bill Belichick.

The Ravens and Patriots have established quite a rivalry in recent years, including heated battles on the field that have at times crept off the field as well.

Ray Lewis, John Harbaugh and Terrell Suggs have all had questionable things to say about New England's success.

But Baltimore hasn't just talked the talk over the years, they've also walked the walk against the Patriots. Four playoff meetings, all in Foxborough, have been split evenly. Three times the winner has gone on to the Super Bowl.

In fact, there have been eight meetings between the teams since Harbaugh took over the Ravens with five of them decided by one score or less. New England has a 5-3 advantage overall, but two of the three games decided by more than a score were Baltimore wins. And the last time they did battle in the divisional round in January of 2015 the Patriots had to twice come back from 14-point deficits using trick plays and trick formations.

Some teams seem to falter in the face of the pressure of playing at Gillette against Belichick, Brady and the rest. That's certainly not the case for Harbaugh, quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens defense.

Nope. Baltimore very much believes it can beat New England every time they face off and will once again bring that battled-tested confidence to a game that has all the makings of a competitive, feisty, late-season matchup in with playoff ramifications for both squads and even the chance of some wintry weather.

Here are a few keys to get ready for a potential classic continuation of the rivalry with the Ravens that has left the Patriots seeing purple more times than they'd care to remember.

Even though Monday Night Football doesn't use the slogan any more, are you ready for some football?

Third and strong - In the NFL third down is known by some as the money down. It's when offenses make plays to stay on the field, extend drives and win games. Or, the defense can earn the chance for a breather and to watch its offensive counterparts got to work. The Ravens have the No. 1 third down defense in the NFL. And though the Brady-led Patriots are No. 6 in terms of third down offense, it was a problem last week when the unit converted just four of 16 chances. That came after converting just four of 14 chances a week earlier in New York. Is this a slump? Part of dealing with life without Rob Gronkowski? Whatever the reason, Brady and Co. need to do a better job converting this week. Of course the Ravens have the No. 1 overall defense, too. So problems on third down against Baltimore can certainly be based in issues on first and second down. As the Patriots evolve as an offense and work through injuries that might be most evident on third down when winning one-on-one battles and making plays is even more at a premium.

Passing concerns - The Patriots pass defense has made a few more plays in recent weeks, but there are still serious questions about the coverage and rush abilities of the unit. While those were far from exploited by rookie passer Jared Goff and the drop-ridden Rams, Flacco has heated up of late working with a varied corps of healthy targets. Flacco has enjoyed a passer rating of 98 or better in three of the last four games while throwing nine of his 15 touchdowns on the season. He's been spreading the ball and the playmaking around to tight end Dennis Pitta as well as speedy receivers in Steve Smith Sr., Mike Wallace and former first-round pick Breshad Perriman. The Ravens have evolved into a pass-first, pass-often team. They have the weapons to spread out the Patriots. Watching how the back end deals with the various targets will be interesting in this matchup. Flacco's night is likely to be the key to the outcome of the game.

The Pees to the game - Brady has seen his production slow a bit. It's certainly good news that he was removed from the injury report this week. An impressive stat also made the rounds that Brady is 6-0 in his career playing the No. 1 overall defense at Gillette. But, his numbers facing former Patriots defensive coordinator and current Ravens defensive boss Dean Pees aren't as impressive. In six games against Pees' Ravens, Brady has just seven touchdowns and seven interceptions, though he has won four of the six contests. New England has also decided to/had to throw the ball 40-plus times in four of the six games, though two of those were losses. With the Ravens leading the NFL in run defense it wouldn't seem likely that LeGarrette Blount is going to be the focal point of the Patriots game plan. More likely, Brady will be asked to throw it early and often on Pees' defense. That means dealing with pressure from sack leader Suggs and keeping an eye on veteran safety Eric Weddle, who has three of Baltimore's 17 interceptions on the season. Pees has a pretty physical front, decent speed at linebacker and solid coverage ability in the back end. Brady has an altered group of weapons - including Martellus Bennett continuing to be a non-factor with just six catches for a mere 40 yards in the last three games while dealing with an ankle injury - with which to attack a knowledgeable coordinator and his impressive defense.

Special conditions - The game will include the best kicker in football this year and the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week. Baltimore's Justin Tucker is having a crazy season, having yet to miss while nailing 11 kicks from 49 yards or longer. Stephen Gostkowski has bounced back of late, including his four kicks (three from 45 or longer) to beat the Rams last weekend. Each veteran has experience dealing with wind and weather, which could be issues. Given the way the battles in this series have played out over the years, it's not hard to imagine the game coming down to kicks late. Both guys are capable of getting the job done, while Patriots fans might try to convince themselves Tucker is due to for a miss or two. 

The long and short of it- Over the entirety of the season, Flacco's offense hasn't been great. But over the last month the group has made impressive strides. The same might be said for the Patriots defense on some level. The group has improved both in terms of pass rush and turnovers in recent weeks. Are the two teams improving late in the year on their respective weaker sides of the ball or is it a case of playing suspect opponents? While a lot of focus in this contest will be on Brady's offense going against the No. 1 defense, how each team's weaker unit performs may be a much more important factor in the result. 

Prediction - Belichick often preaches that what happened last week, last month or last year has no bearing on what will take place in the current week. But those are all factors we all consider when projecting a game. History tells us the Ravens will be ready to play in Foxborough and put up a fight. Recent weeks tell us Baltimore is playing better football on offense and the defense is legit. New England, on the other hand, has been only OK in a three-game winning streak over lesser opponents. Are Brady and the New England offense ready to prove something against what's supposedly one of the better defenses in the game? I simply have my doubts right now in the post-Gronkowski portion of the season. And Flacco seems to be playing his best ball of the season heading into this game with a Patriots pass defense that still has plenty to prove. Last we saw New England at home against a good football team in a playoff-like game it was a loss to the Seahawks. Toss it all together and this feels like a tough fight that will go well into the fourth quarter before it's decided. In the end, the Patriots may come up a little bit short in a27-24 lossto a Harbaugh-led squad that's building healthy momentum toward the postseason. I won't be surprised if either team wins, the only surprise will be if the game is a blowout and doesn't keep fans entertained on the edge of their seats for nearly 60 minutes. 

What do you think of our keys? Let us know with a comment below!

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