The Ravens are set to take on the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium (1:00 p.m. ET).
*BR.com offers a look at Baltimore's next opponent. *
2009 Rankings* *
Total Offense – 3rd (234.0 ypg) Total Defense – 11th (320.2)
Rush Offense – 12th (120.1) Rush Defense – 13th (110.5)
Pass Offense – 3rd (277.3) Pass Defense – 12th (209.7)
Points Per Game – 6th (22.5) Points Per Game – 5th (17.8)
Sizing Them Up
Led by coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots are one of the most consistent teams in the NFL, owning the league record for consecutive victories including the playoffs with 21 from 2003-04 and consecutive playoff wins (10 from 2001-05.
But, New England is also hungry after not making the postseason last year, despite their 11-5 record.
Of course, in 2008, quarterback Tom Brady was injured in the opener when a defender ran into his knee and tore his ACL. Now, Brady seems to be back to his Pro Bowl level, as the Patriots are a team that essentially relies solely on the pass.
Brady's deep target is the rangy Randy Moss, who boasts 83 receptions for 1,264 yards and 13 touchdowns. Moss also averages 15.2 yards per catch. The NFL's leading catch man is Wes Welker, who had 123 grabs on the season, but Welker sustained a knee injury last week and was placed on Injured Reserve.
That means rookie Julian Edelman, a near clone of Welker, will take up some of the slot duties, and the up-and-coming Sam Aiken, a University of North Carolina product, could get some more looks. Also, tight end Ben Watson and versatile running back Kevin Faulk are valuable options.
Defensively, the Patriots are led by second-year linebacker Jerod Mayo, who leads the team with 113 tackles. Mayo has earned comparisons to a young Ray Lewis from many in the Ravens organization. In addition, Baltimore will have to keep an eye on outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, whose career-high 10 sacks led New England.
The Patriots also have a strong presence up front with nose tackle Vince Wilfork, a 6-foot-2, 325-pound run stuffer that anchors the defensive line. Wilfork has been battling injury all year, as he was listed on this week's injury report with a foot, but he has been a full participant at practice leading up to Sunday.
What's Up?* *
Tony Massarotti of The Boston Globe thinks that Belichick and Brady will always give the Patriots a chance to make the playoffs.
"But when Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are involved – and they forever will be joined at the hip in any recollection of this Patriots era – to dismiss them would be illogical, foolish, and downright reckless."
Patriots.com's Eric Scalavino covers some players' rebuttal of the notion that losing Welker early in last week's game was the best possible time.
"He got hurt, so I don't want to say it's more beneficial. The fact that we lost him is the issue," running back Sammy Morrisstated, per Patriots.com. "It's still a player we lost from our offense. I guess you could say having a week to prepare as far as not having him in there, yeah. For us, it's hard to look at it from that perspective because we lost Wes for the year."
Ian R. Rapoport of The Boston Herald writes about Mayo's first-ever NFL playoff game and what the experience will be like.
"Jerod Mayo has performed in high-profile, high-stakes, postseason games in his career. But they all came while he was wearing the orange of the Tennessee Volunteers."
Offensive – Brady is clicking on all the right cylinders after missing all of last year with that knee injury. He posted a team-record third 4,000-yard season, completing 371 of 565 passes for 4,398 yards, 28 interceptions and only 13 interceptions. Brady also boasted seven 300-yard performances in 2009.
Defensive – Mayo is becoming the young leader New England envisioned when they selected him 10th-overall last year. The former NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year is a stellar sideline-to-sideline tackler with 113 stops and 1.5 sacks.
WR Julian Edelman
Edelman must step up in Welker's absence. The former quarterback from Kent State was a seventh-round selection, but he's shown flashes of talent when called upon. In Week 2, he notched eight receptions for 98 yards while Welker was out with a knee injury, and in the season finale, he boasted 10 catches for 103 yards.
Ravens C Matt Birk vs. Patriots NT Vince Wilfork
The Ravens brought in Birk this offseason partly to deal with the massive nose men in the AFC North, and Wilfork fits that mold. In games against that type of player this year, Birk has held his own. It will be a load to move Wilfork, but expect guards Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda to lend a hand.
Ravens CBs Domonique Foxworth vs. Patriots WR Randy Moss
Foxworth was assigned to Moss the last time these two teams played, and with the help from a safety at times, he held the playmaking receiver to only three catches for 50 yards. Of course, one of those grabs was a 14-yard touchdown. Foxworth must be physical with Moss but wary of too much contact at the risk of an interference penalty.
Belichick on what the most dangerous aspect of the Ravens is between offense, defense and special teams: "All of that. Yeah, all of it. I mean, you look at a game like the Denver game: They take the kickoff back 95 yards to start the third quarter and make a couple big hits and tackles on there on kickoff coverage. You know, they've had an edge all year in the kickoff/kickoff return field position when the ball gets exchanged on that. They're a very good covering team; they're a good return team. Offensively, they've been productive running, throwing, again the play-action game, we talked about that. And defensively, I don't think anybody has played better defense than the Ravens have in the last half of the season. They've got a great front. They can rush the passer, they can stop the run, they turn the ball over."
Brady on how big of a loss is WR Wes Welker: "Well, you can't replace Wes Welker. He's a Pro Bowl receiver. He's one of a kind. There's only one of him in the whole league. Really, it's not really fair for us to say Julian [Edelman] has got to do what Wes has done. I think there is a whole group that's going to have to fill the void. That's typically what happens in the NFL when guys go down, especially players of Wes' caliber. There is a collective effort by a group of players that really need to step their game up, improve their level of performance, and there is obviously less margin of error when a guy like Wes goes out because he was such a great playmaker for us."
The weather in Foxborough, Mass., isn't expected to be too nasty, except for the cold, so it's not like this contest will revert into a muck-fest that features the rushing attack.
But, Baltimore's ground game will be critical to both keeping Brady and Co. off the field and it's been the best way for the Ravens to move the chains all year.
I don't think that pertains to only Ray Rice, though. Rice is a dynamo, but as last week showed, Willis McGahee can still perform at a high level when he's needed. And, don't be surprised if 260-pound fullback Le'Ron McClain gets a few carries.
The Ravens are a team that likes to beat up the opposition. A saying goes around the locker that they are "building a bully." Well, with the huge jumbo packages that feature 315-pound guard Chris Chester at tight end and the unbalanced line, the Ravens have the size and physicality to muscle up against the Patriots.
Sure, Joe Flacco has the ability to rebound from a quiet day in Oakland, but when something is working so well, why not continue to grind out the yardage and leave the Patriots battered and bruised?
When Brady does have the ball, the Ravens will have to play disciplined in all aspects. He's smart enough to take advantage of any small mistake, and the penalties that have hurt the Ravens in the past – roughing the passer, pass interference, personal foul – could be killer in an unfriendly stadium.