Any time two regular foes get together for a Sunday afternoon matinee between the white lines, the intensity level is automatically escalated regardless of the records. With the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots set to do battle on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, the playoff implications are significant and another chapter can be added to this rivalry between two of the top organizations in the NFL.
Both of these teams have participated in the last two AFC Championship Games and each regular season contest between the two has felt the same intensity. This time around, the Patriots are playing for the no. 1 seed in the AFC as the AFC East is all but wrapped up at this point if they can win at least one of their next two contests remaining in the regular season.
The Ravens are still fighting for their playoff lives, but if they win out, they win the AFC North. Both teams will come out looking for blood and if the Ravens are to end up on the right end, they must do three things in order to leave their friendly confines as victors.
1. Establish the run against the 31st-ranked run defense of the Patriots, limiting the amount of time Tom Brady is on the field
Baltimore doesn’t run the football well and they haven’t for most of the 2013 season, but their best ground game outputs came against porous run defenses. Ray Rice leads a rushing attack that averages a mere 82.9 yards per game (29th in the NFL) and hasn’t had the same burst through the holes as he has shown in years past.
Bernard Pierce hasn’t been a spring chicken either, but with Vince Wolfork no longer clogging the middle with the big uglies up front, this should be a game where the Ravens can use their zone-blocking schemes to their advantage. That doesn’t mean fullback Vonta Leach needs to be on the field for this team to be successful either, as his snaps have steadied in the single-digits in recent weeks.
With the usage of single-back sets and three wide receivers more often than not, the Ravens aren’t the same power-running team of old, but they need to have comparable success as years past.
2. Get after the quarterback as receivers shouldn’t challenge Ravens’ secondary too much
No Rob Gronkowski. No Kenbrell Thompkins. No true receiving threat that scares anyone outside of maybe Julian Edelman. That’s what the Ravens face this Sunday. However, Brady is still under center and is the best in the league in terms of getting everything out of the weapons at his disposal no matter their physical abilities or skills.
Brady, like most quarterbacks, hates getting sacked and avoids contact more than most gunslingers in the league, which allows fans to label him as “soft”. While Brady is merely protecting himself, Baltimore has had just one sack over their last 12 quarters of play, Brady gets visibly frustrated when facing pressure and without Nate Solder to protect him on the outside, this may be Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil‘s best chance to get off of their schneid in terms of sacks.
3. Finish drives as field goals won’t likely get the job done with New England’s potent offense
Joe Flacco and Brady are both 3-3 all-time in this series since Joe’s arrival to the NFL in 2008. This game will likely be close and come down to the fourth quarter. While both teams have exceptional kickers in Justin Tucker and Stephen Gostkowski and even though a field goal margin is likely, the team that capitalizes on long drives and finishes better in the red zone will likely come out on top.
Since Baltimore’s 2:07 three-touchdown explosion against the Minnesota Vikings, they’ve been held out of the end zone. In facing a struggling defense like New England’s, expect Flacco and his mates to attack the Patriots for all the marbles. They will do so with tight end Dennis Pitta and Marlon Brown in the red zone and on third down as they appear to be the most comfortable targets at Flacco’s disposal when he’s in a bind with pressure.
Score Prediction: Baltimore Ravens – 27, New England Patriots – 24