Game Preview: Patriots vs. Ravens

Critical late-season games against the Patriots are becoming a bit of a tradition.

This Sunday will feature another clash between the conference rivals in a rematch of the last two AFC championships.

"They have always been big games, and fortunately, we have both been in the hunt all those years, so there has been a lot riding on it – this year as much as ever," Head Coach John Harbugh said. "It's a big game for us for that reason. But, without looking back too much, it's all been great, but it's all history now.

"This game stands alone, and this is really the only one we are thinking about."

Both teams have plenty on the line, as the Ravens need to win to continue to control their own playoff destiny. The Patriots have already solidified a spot in the playoffs, but they are fighting for homefield advantage throughout the postseason.

Sunday's game is the final game of the year scheduled at M&T Bank Stadium, but the Ravens could  come back in a few weeks if they end up winning the AFC North and securing a home playoff game.

Matchups To Watch

WR Torrey Smith vs. CB Aquib TalibSmith has been quiet lately, and he will have a big test in facing off against Talib this week. The Patriots typically use Talib to match up against the opponent's top receiver, so he will likely shadow Smith. Smith had four catches for 69 yards against Talib in the AFC championship last year, and Sunday will be another test for the Ravens' top wideout.

OLB Terrell Suggs vs. QB Tom BradySuggs and Brady both downplayed the rivalry between the two of them this week, but don't expect that to carry into Sunday. They will be looking to get the better of each other, and Suggs hopes to end his current five game sackless streak.

QB Joe Flacco vs. S Devin McCourtyMcCourty delivered the most compelling trash talk of the week when he said that the Patriots wanted to deliver the "knock out blow" to the Ravens. Now quarterback Joe Flacco and the offense hope to make him eat those words. Flacco is coming off a knee injury that limited him in practice during the week, and he plans to wear a knee brace Sunday to give him some extra protection. The injury is not significant, but Flacco will still have to adjust to the brace to find a groove.

Keys To The Game

Convert close to the end zoneThe Ravens have found ways to win close games in recent weeks, but one concerning trend is the team's inability to score touchdowns once they get close to the end zone. The Ravens rank 29th in the NFL in red-zone efficiency, and they can only rely on Justin Tucker's leg for so long. The Patriots average 26.4 points per game, so capitalizing on trips inside the red-zone will be critical for Baltimore's offense.

Keep Brady from getting comfortableBrady is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL at getting rid of the football in a hurry. He has a quick release and the Patriots use a heavy dosage of short passes to move the ball down the field. Baltimore's pass rush has been quiet in recent weeks, but finding a way to knock Brady out of rhythm is important for the Ravens.

Mix in effective runsThe running game has been a struggle all season for the Ravens, but the group has shown some improvement recently. Rice averaged 4.7 yards per carry last week against the Lions, and now the Ravens face a Patriots defense that ranks 31st in the league against the run. The Ravens likely won't be the ground-and-pound team they were in previous years, but mixing in some effective runs could keep the Patriots honest and prevent them from bringing extra pressure on Flacco.  

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