Bill Belichick's Patriots (10-4) head to Baltimore with plenty of prove and a lot on the line against the defending Super Bowl champs. John Harbaugh's Ravens (8-6) have won four in a row looking to make a run at defending their title. These two teams have played a combined 16 games this season decided by a field goal or less. They've played four straight games in this series decided by three points or less. It's pretty close to a must-win in many ways for both teams. So it should be a playoff-like environment as two of the more impressive consistent franchises in the AFC do battle yet again in rematch of the last two conference title games. The weather is supposed to be unseasonably mild, although there is a possibility for thunder storms. There will certainly be some thunder and lightning on the field as these two new-age rivals battle it out. Until the late afternoon kickoff in Baltimore crack open this Inner Harbor inspired, blue crab brewed and Old Bay seasoned Patriots at Ravens Pregame Six-Pack!
1. Red zone battle – There is little question that the Patriots have struggled in the red zone this season when playing without Rob Gronkowski. That was proven yet again last week in Miami in the first game since the Pro Bowl tight end landed on injured reserve. New England went one for four in the red zone and lost the game by four points. The line is that fine right now and the Patriots will continue to need take advantage of every scoring chance they get. Baltimore sports the NFL's No. 4 red zone defense, so things won't get any easier on the road in M & T Bank Stadium Sunday evening. The Ravens also have a top-10 run defense, so it may not be as easy as running the ball more in the red zone, as some professed last week. The bottom line is that watching Tom Brady go 2 of 11 passing in the red zone as he did a week ago is probably not good enough. And it's probably not fair to count on Michael Hoomanawanui to make a crazy, one-handed catch for a touchdown. Josh McDaniels must scheme it up better. Brady must execute it better. And getting one or both rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins back should add help, as each is better suited to making plays in the tight, physical confines of the red zone than the likes of Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman or Austin Collie. It's not overly simplistic to say this game could be decided in the red zone, especially considering the Ravens, who rank 29th in red zone offense, are coming off a game in which they kicked six field goals and didn't score a touchdown.
2. It's Ngata problem – One of the great commonalities in all the Patriots road losses this season is an impressive defensive front. The Jets, Bengals, Panthers and Dolphins were all capable of exerting their will in the trenches. The same is true of the Ravens, and that's led by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Ngata is a major problem that the interior of the Patriots offensive line must deal with. Ryan Wendell is undersized and can be pushed around by powerful defenders like Ngata at times. Dan Connolly hasn't had the best of years. And, with Josh Kline finishing the game at left guard last week, there is a chance that the middle of the Patriots offense is as weakened as it's been in quite some time. Chandler Jones' brother, Arthur, is also a force that the interior of the line will have to deal with. The Ravens impressive run defense and some of the success of the pass rushers off the edge is directly tied to what Ngata and Co. do in the middle. If the Patriots can't deal with the Pro Bowler, it could be a long, struggling day for the New England offense.
3. Protective services – Even if the Patriots can deal with the middle of the Ravens defense, that's far from the end of the challenge. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil each have 9 sacks as part of a Baltimore front that's No. 9 in the NFL in sacks per pass play. That's a concern any day, but it's exacerbated given the uncertain health of left tackle Nate Solder (concussion) and the potential lineup on the edge of the offensive line. Solder missed practice on Wednesday only to return on a limited basis Thursday and Friday. He's questionable to play. It's the same track he took last week after first suffering the concussion against the Browns, only to return to start in Miami before being sidelined with the injury again in the fourth quarter. If he can't go, it leaves a hole on the left side. If he can, there is the concern of how long he can go. Left guard Logan Mankins bounced out to tackle last week and was solid. But if he does that again, it leaves the middle of the line undermanned. Will Svitek might be an option, too, with Marcus Cannon having returned to health at right tackle. Regardless of who is at the left tackle spot, including Solder, they face a major challenge in Suggs, who's made big plays off the edge to hurt the Patriots offense a number of times in the past. The former defensive player of the year has been a little bit quiet of late on the field but has never been shy about voicing his hate of Brady and the Patriots. He'd like nothing more than to ruin the game for New England.
- Fluster Flacco** – Outside of red zone success, pressuring the quarterback will be a major key for both teams. The Patriots pass rush has been too inconsistent of late, but that needs to change against Joe Flacco. The quarterback is dealing with a knee injury and will be wearing a knee brace on Sunday. The Super Bowl MVP's mobility is underrated, but a clear part of his game whether it be in the pocket or rolling out. If that's limited, and given the limited success of the Ravens running game this season, it would be a huge boost to the Patriots defense. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are both healthy and should be ready to be key a defensive the defensive front. Jones has 11.5 sacks to lead New England, but hasn't been a consistent force off the edge in recent weeks. That probably needs to change if the Patriots are going to put together a championship-caliber defense down the stretch this season. Ninkovich has always been a timely playmaker for the defense over the years. There would be no better time for the defensive end to have a big impact on a game than this Sunday evening in the Inner Harbor. Even rookie Chris Jones, who hasn't had a sack in the last six games, might be leaned on to get back to the action that saw him record five sacks in the first five games of his New England career. The Ravens offensive line has been a clear weakness this season. Flacco has been sacked 42 times. There will be chances to get after the Ravens $120 million man. New England must take advantage of those chances and not allow him to make plays against a Patriots secondary that's seemingly been hanging on for dear life in recent weeks.
5. It's better to take than to give – It may not be in line with the holiday spirit this time of year, but the Patriots need to get back to taking things away – as in forcing some turnovers that are supposed to be the lifeline of the New England defense. That lifeline has dried up in recent weeks. No interceptions in the last two games. Only one turnover in Miami and that was a botched field goal/fake field goal by the Dolphins. New England has just two interceptions in the last five games combined. Not good enough. The defenders haven't gotten around the ball with regularity. The pass rush hasn't gotten around the quarterback enough to force bad throws. The symbiotic relationship between the coverage and the rush has been out of synch. That needs to improve against a Flacco-led passing attack that's had 17 interceptions this season, including five multi-pick games. Clearly guys are still fighting through injuries in the back end of the Patriots defense, but they are on the field and expected to make plays. They need to get back to doing that against a quarterback and passing attack that should give them some chances.
6. Long and short – One of the big reasons the Ravens passing attack hasn't been as potent this fall – it ranks just 20th in the NFL – is that Flacco hasn't been as successful getting the ball down the field as he was late last season. Leading receiver Torrey Smith is still a major concern, especially with Aqib Talib battling a hip issue that's seen him play differently (in the slot, not matched up as often) and not as well over the second half of this season. Smith is averaging 17.5 yard per reception. And the Ravens do have six different guys (as do the Patriots) with a catch of 40 yards or longer. So the deep passing game is still a concern. But so is the short game. Running back Ray Rice is Baltimore's second-leading receiver. He only averages 5.4 per catch, but is a frequent check-down for Flacco. Dennis Pitta is also back, working his way to full health after a major hip injury. He's been Flacco's favorite target in the past from the tight end spot. Pitta and Rice can both challenge the middle of the field and the short passing areas, complementing Smith, Jacoby Jones and the deep passing game. New England has had its issues with backs catching the ball this year and both Dont'a Hightower and Devin McCourty will be key in dealing with the likes of Rice and Flacco. The Ravens 3.0-yard average running the ball might not be an issue, but Baltimore can use the short passing game to keep drives alive and supplement the disappointing rushing attack. Of course Rice did go off against the Bears No. 32 rush defense earlier this year, and New England's run defense is the next worst in the NFL at No. 31. Still the complementary hi-lo passing game is more of a concern.
Both these teams are led by experienced coaches, quarterbacks and veterans. They all know what's at stake and how the game might play out this time of year with plenty on the line. The two teams are used to playing tight, playoff-like games this year and against each other in recent years. It would be a shock to see either team run away with a victory in this one. In close games, that puts an emphasis on certain areas such as the red zone, special teams and turnovers. In a lot of ways, those factors favor the home Ravens. They have an impressive red zone defense that will challenge New England's struggling red zone offense. Baltimore has a hot kicker who will be kicking in his home environment. And the Ravens have a return game that can and has changed games this season, led by Jacoby Jones. If Brady is less than perfect – he's thrown nine interceptions in his last five games against Baltimore dating back to 2010 -- and the Patriots can't force game-changing turnovers, this could be a tough one to win on the road against a physical Ravens team that's shown the ability to get up for and beat the Patriots in recent years. Put it all together and I think the Patriots lose two in a row in December for the first time since 2002 with a 21-18 defeat on the road. It certainly wouldn't surprise me to see a similarly close victory for the Patriots, but it just feels that too many of the factors that usually come into play in close games favor the Ravens.