Days away from the first injury report for this weekend's NFL playoff games, the Ravens' matchup with the New England Patriots already has fans of both teams buzzing about bumps and bruises – or perhaps some things more serious.
Multiple reports have surfaced that identify potentially devastating injuries to two key Patriots, quarterback Tom Brady and wideout Wes Welker.
According to several outlets, Brady is suffering from three broken ribs and a broken finger on his throwing hand. But considering his performance of late, the ribs and finger haven't been a problem for Brady.
Welker is another story. He underwent tests on Monday after his knee buckled in Sunday's 34-27 loss to the Houston Texans. It was reported that the productive receiver tore the anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his left knee, effectively ending his season. Patriots coach Bill Belichick would not confirm Welker's status in a conference call with media.
Whatever the case, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh does not expect New England to miss a beat without Welker and a banged-up Brady.
"If you look at their offensive line, they've had a bunch of guys nicked up on their offensive line throughout the course of the season, and they just plug the next guy in, and he plays just as well, and they look the same," said Harbaugh in his weekly press conference. "To me, that's the mark of a real deep football team, and a really strong program and a good coaching staff. So, they've been able to plug in for their injuries very effectively this year, and I don't see any difference here in this one."
Still, losing Welker will have an impact on how the Wild-Card contest unfolds.
He was Brady's top target with a knack of turning short and intermediate routes into big gains, as he posted a league-leading 123 receptions for 1,348 yards and four touchdowns in only 14 games this year. The hard-working Welker is a perfect outlet for Brady when deep threat Randy Moss gets lackadaisical, of which he has been accused this year.
Even Brady acknowledged Welker's importance.
"We're going to evolve a little bit as an offense now," Brady said on Boston's WEEI AM radio on Monday. "It was a very Wes Welker-oriented offense. And now, maybe part of the advantage is Baltimore doesn't really know what they're going to see from us now. We're going to have to shift focus, and they're really not sure where that focus is going to go. In some ways, that's an advantage for us."
Welker's replacement, rookie Julian Edelman, could be just as dangerous. They are similarly-sized, at under six feet and 200 pounds, both were former college quarterbacks and both excel in the slot.
The first time the Ravens and Patriots squared off (Oct. 4), Welker notched six grabs for 48 yards in a 27-21 New England win. But leading up to that battle, Welker was dealing with another knee injury, so the Ravens' defense had to study film of Edelman to see how the Patriots used the slot receiver.
What they saw was impressive. Edelman started in Week 2 against the New York Jets, where he racked up eight catches for 98 yards.
"I remember watching Edelman was in there," said cornerback Chris Carr, who marked Welker and will likely draw Edelman. "He was very effective against Jets, which is a great defense. Just because Wes isn't playing doesn't mean we can be comfortable. You just have to match his quickness and be patient. I'm small and shifty, so that plays to my strengths. I'm very confident going into the first game, he caught two when I was blitzing. It's unfortunate that he's injured, but it's still going to be a tough game."
As for Brady, the Ravens are closely monitoring his status, even if he continues to play well despite the reported injuries.
Brady completed 40 of 52 passes for 453 yards, four touchdowns and only one interception over the past two weeks.
The Ravens, who have seen recent success getting to the quarterback, are coming off a day where they logged three sacks on the Oakland Raiders and nine in three games.
They will certainly go after Brady, but must do it with care. In the previous meeting between these teams, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and linebacker Terrell Suggs were both flagged for costly roughing-the-passer penalties for hitting Brady.
With their playoff aspirations on the line, the Ravens can't afford to have any mercy.
"We're not going to target a guy's injury, per se, but we're going to try to hit the quarterback," Harbaugh said. "That's part of the deal and you try to do it within the rules. And there's a strike zone that they talk about and there's a two-step rule that they talk about. Our guys are just going to try to get to him and sack him. That's the idea."