Traditional AFC titans will clash on Sunday night at M&T Bank Stadium as the Baltimore Ravens will host the New England Patriots. The game is a rematch of last season’s AFC title game that the Patriots squeaked out after missed opportunities by the Ravens. More pressing though for both teams will be avoiding a 1-2 start.
The Ravens come in off a frustrating loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Ravens led by 10 points to start the second half and had the ball, but a stagnant offense and some iffy calls from the much-maligned replacement refs let what looked like a win slip away.
The Patriots also come off a game that they let slip away. The Patriots had an uncharacteristically inconsistent offensive attack, but also let inopportune penalties and a missed field goal beat them in a loss to the upstart Arizona Cardinals. A potentially bigger blow than the loss itself was losing tight end Aaron Hernandez to injury, as the explosive Hernandez will not play.
Baltimore will be looking to achieve more offensive balance. Ray Rice is 20th in the league in rushing attempts, and overall the Ravens are throwing the ball 63 percent of the time. The Ravens have gotten away from their pro bowl running back, especially in short-yardage situations, and the conversion rate hasn’t been pretty. The Patriots meanwhile boast a defensive unit that ranks second in the NFL. The unit has been led by linebacker Jerod Mayo, as he is fourth in the NFL in tackles. A surprise on defense has been the immediate impact made by rookie defensive end Chandler Jones. The 21st overall pick in the 2012 draft out of Syracuse leads the NFL with two forced fumbles, and also has 10 tackles and a sack.
The Patriots haven’t faced any offensive juggernauts in the Cardinals and Tennessee Titans, but their defense is still a much improved unit. Rice has traditionally had success against the Patriots, and the Ravens must put their trust in Rice to get the offense more evenly balanced. Joe Flacco will look to be sharper and spread the ball around more equally after he had blinders on for tight end Dennis Pitta last week. Flacco stared down Pitta on numerous occasions and eventually threw an interception on a forced ball to Pitta. The Ravens will need a balance between the pass and run, and Flacco will also need to find a balance in the passing game to keep the Patriots’ linebackers and secondary honest.
The most surprising stat coming into the game is where the Ravens’ defense is located in the NFL. The Ravens are ranked 27th in the league, allowing 404 yards-per-game. Meanwhile, the Patriots offense is near the top as they rank 6th in the league, averaging 388.5 yards-per-game. Both the Ravens’ defense and the Patriots’ offense will come in looking to atone for last week’s second-half breakdowns. Strong safety Bernard Pollard missed the final three quarters last week after leaving with a rib injury. Pollard is still banged up but is ready to go. The same cannot be said for the aforementioned Hernandez, as the Patriots signed both tight end Kellen Winslow and wide receiver Deion Branch in an attempt to fill the void in Hernandez’s absence.
The more substantial way to fill the void left by Hernandez may be with wide receiver Wes Welker. The four-time-pro-bowler led the NFL in receptions last season, but has been buried on the depth chart this season after his contract issues and comments put him in coach Bill Belichick‘s doghouse. Welker played in 88 percent of the Patriots’ offensive snaps last season, but has been on the field for only 71 percent this season. Welker has seemingly been surpassed by Julian Edelman on the wide receiver depth chart, as Edelman took 10 more snaps than Welker did last week. Welker didn’t even see the field last week until Hernandez exited with his ankle injury.
So with the Hernandez injury it seems that Welker should get a shot to work himself into Belichick’s good graces and see more playing time. A big day from Welker would go a long way into turning both his and the Patriots’ season around.
However, the Ravens’ defense is also looking to right the ship and round into form. Losing Hernandez will prohibit Belichick from throwing out two top-tier tight ends on any play with Rob Gronkowski, as Winslow will be a big question mark. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata must lead the Ravens’ front line to put pressure on quarterback Tom Brady and not give him time, as the Patriots offense may be a little off while adjusting to life without Hernandez.
An area where the Ravens appear to have the advantage is in special teams. The Ravens are averaging more yards on kickoffs and punts, while averaging more yards on kickoff and punt returns. Kicker Justin Tucker has been perfect on the year for the Ravens as he has been better than the Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski, who missed a very make-able field goal as time expired in the Patriots’ two-point loss last week.
With the memory of last season’s heartbreaking three-point loss in the AFC title in the back of their minds, look for the Ravens to come out a hungry, more-balanced team. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was widely criticized for his play-calling last week so expect a heavy dose of Rice, especially in short-yardage situations. The key swing in injuries could be the deciding factor as Pollard returns while Hernendez sits. Defensively the Ravens must try to contain Brady and the passing attack enough, and make second-year running back Stevan Ridley beat them. If the Patriots passing attack gels quickly without Hernandez it could be a long night for the Ravens. If not, look for the Ravens to control the clock with Rice, and let Flacco pick his spots. Either way, this truly should be a back-and-forth slug fest between two of the AFC’s best.