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Scouting the Matchup: Inconsistent Ravens present problems

WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN

The Patriots rank sixth among NFL teams in rushing and LeGarrette Blount leads the league in rushing touchdowns (13). That ground attack became more diverse when Dion Lewis returned from a knee injury in Week 11. New England will be facing a stiff test this week, however, as the Ravens are the NFL's top team defending the run. Nine of Baltimore's 12 opponents failed to rush for more than 65 yards, and only one (Cleveland) has averaged more than 4 yards per carry.  Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan are good run-stuffers up front, and linebacker Zach Orr ranks among the league's top-10 players in terms of tackles. Blount will face a difficult task and it may be up to Lewis and James White to generate much on the ground. Advantage: RAVENS

WHEN THE RAVENS RUN

The Ravens haven't shown much of a commitment to the running game this season, as evidenced by the fact that they're in the bottom third of the league in rushing attempts. Baltimore ranks 28th in rushing yards per game, 29th in yards per carry and 24th in rushing touchdowns. Baltimore's offensive line is healthier now than it's been for most of the season, however, and the Ravens seem to have settled on a two-back attack that features Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon. Both have been productive in limited opportunities. The Patriots allowed at least 94 yards on the ground in five consecutive games before holding the Jets to 64 yards rushing. The Patriots limited the Rams to 36 yards on the ground last week and are trending in the right direction. Advantage: PATRIOTS

WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS

As long as Tom Brady is healthy, this will be New England's strength. Passing yards won't come easy against the Ravens, though, especially since their pass rush became even scarier when outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil returned from a foot injury in a Week 12 victory over the Bengals. Dumervil and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs form one of the best pass-rushing combinations in the league, so the Patriots will need an exceptional effort from their offensive line. Suggs has a team-high eight sacks, and Jernigan is next with five. Jimmy Smith, the team's top cornerback, missed two games with a back injury but returned to the lineup against Miami last week. New England is still adjusting to life without tight end Rob Gronkowski and is searching for way to move the ball without him. Look for Lewis and White to be involved in the passing game, but with athletic linebackers C.J. Mosley and Orr that won't be easy. Advantage: RAVENS

WHEN THE RAVENS PASS

Injuries to the offensive line and the lack of a dependable running game have made life tough for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco this season. Flacco has thrown 15 touchdown passes and has been intercepted 11 times. He's failed to throw more than one touchdown pass in nine of Baltimore's 12 games, and he's produced just three 300-yard passing games, although he passed for 381 yards and four TDs last week against Miami. Tight end Dennis Pitta and wide receivers Mike Wallace and Steve Smith are Flacco's top targets. Wallace remains a deep threat, as does second-year wideout Breshad Perriman, who is coming on as of late. The Patriots recorded four sacks and intercepted two passes in last Sunday's victory over the Rams, and that type of pressure would take some of the heat of a secondary that could have its hands full with Baltimore's array of weapons. Advantage: RAVENS

SPECIAL TEAMS

Much of Baltimore's success this season can be attributed to its defense and Justin Tucker, who is the best kicker in the league. Tucker has yet to miss a kick this season. He's 28 of 28 on field-goal attempts, 20 of 20 on PATs and hasn't missed any of his last 35 field-goal attempts. Tucker made three field goals from beyond 50 yards in the first half of Baltimore's Week 12 victory against Cincinnati, and added a 55-yarder last week against Miami. The Week 12 effort earned Tucker his seventh AFC Player of the Week award during his five-year career. By comparison, New England's Stephen Gostkowski has missed at least one kick (field-goal attempt or point-after kick) in seven of New England's 12 games. Gostkowski made each of his four field goals in last week's victory over the Rams. Advantage: RAVENS

OTHER FACTORS

Some teams wilt when they play big games at Gillette Stadium, but that hasn't been the case with Baltimore in recent years. The Ravens have a 2-2 record in playoff games against the Patriots since 2010, all of which have been played at Gillette. Although Baltimore has a 2-4 record in its last six road games against New England, none of those games was decided by more than six points, and one went to overtime. In addition, Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco usually plays well at Gillette. He was 22 of 36 for 306 yards and two touchdowns (one interception) when Baltimore posted a 23-20 playoff victory in 2012 and was 28 of 45 for 292 yards and four TDs (two INTs) in a 35-31 playoff loss in 2015. Advantage: RAVENS

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