This Sunday, the New England Patriots (10-4) travel to Baltimore to take on the 8-6 Ravens. Game time is 4:25 EST, shown on CBS, with Jim Nantz and Phil Simms providing commentary.
Well, last week I was worried that the Dolphins would be a tricky out because of their desperation in staying in this playoff race. And indeed, Miami showed an urgency the Patriots couldn’t top. Ryan Tannehill played out of his mind. The Dolphins front seven were constantly disruptive. The Patriots made mistakes, and the Dolphins didn’t. The Patriots were still in it, but eventually a team’s luck runs out.
And this week? Basically all my fears from last week multiplied by two. The Ravens still have a chance at the AFC North title, needing to win out the season to clinch a playoff spot. As it is, the Ravens are one of the hottest teams in the NFL, going 5-2 since their bye week, and are notoriously tough at home.
Of course, the Patriots now can’t afford to lose many more times. In these playoffs, and with the Pats’ impossible success at Foxborough, picking up as much home-field advantage as possible is key. And of course, there’s still a chance the Patriots somehow miss the playoffs. They need this win. Badly.
But let’s take a closer look:
Key Matchup: Brandon Spikes vs. Ray Rice
Alright, so the Patriots aren’t great against the run. Losing Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Tommy Kelly can do that to a defense. As of now they sit at 31st in the NFL, giving up 132.5 yards a game.
That being said, a big reason for that crazy number is that the Pats tend to arrange a scheme around shutting down one side of the opposing offense. For example, in the game against the Broncos, the Pats defense allowed Knowshon Moreno to run wild for 224 yards, focusing on shutting down the Broncos’ receivers, and succeeding. Take away that game, and the Patriots are giving up 125.4 yards a game, good for 25th in the league. It’s still not good, but also shows that the base numbers aren’t the best way to judge the Patriots.
And indeed, the Patriots may decide to focus on shutting down Ray Rice early in this game. Rice has suffered through a pretty disappointing season, not just by his own lofty standards. He’s running 3.1 yds a game, with only 4 TDs, and if you spent a high pick in your fantasy league on him, I feel your pain. That’s not to say Rice still isn’t dangerous, and if the Pats give him the Moreno treatment, he’ll pick up the yards he needs.
But focusing on stopping the run early may be the best way to disrupt this Baltimore offense. The Ravens’ passing offense relies pretty steadily on the deep pass, and they have a pair of absolute burners in Torrey Smith and Marlon Brown. However, Joe Flacco has struggled at times with his consistency, and has thrown 17 interceptions this season. If the Patriots can force a bunch of 3rd and longs, Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory will have no problem playing deep and sitting on the deep ball. Therefore the key to this game is stopping Rice, and much of that success will depend on thumper Brandon Spikes, who’s disappointed at times this season.
If the Patriots shut down the Ravens’ running game, and force the ball into Flacco’s hands, this Pats’ secondary should be able to force some turnovers and keep the Ravens off the board.
3 Things To Watch
- Key Matchup, Part II: Dennis Pitta vs. Jamie Collins/Aqib Talib
Right, so admittedly a lot of Flacco’s struggles can be attributed to the absence of his security blanket in Dennis Pitta. And now Dennis Pitta’s back. In two games, he’s already been targeted 15 times, and presents consistency in the middle of the field. The Patriots haven’t been terrible against opposing tight ends, and last week they shut down Dolphins’ Charles Clay. But every now and again, players like Jordan Cameron or Greg Olsen have good games against the Pats. The Patriots could stick Aqib Talib on Pitta, and hope that he replicates the immense success he had against Jimmy Graham, but with the danger that the Ravens’ receivers pose, that might not be the best idea. A better, albeit more risky, option could be Pats’ rookie linebacker Jamie Collins, who has impressed at times and has the athleticism to keep up with Pitta. Either way, look for Belichick to find a way to take Pitta out of the equation.
2. Who’s healthy?
Look, I don’t want to be a whiner. And I know that every team has had injury problems. But I have absolutely no problem being the saddest leader of the Patriots Pity Party, because this is getting ridiculous. This week, Josh Boyce has already been ruled out, while starting left tackle Nate Solder looks iffy after suffering another concussion in last week’s game. Luckily, the Patriots are hoping to have Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson back.
Dobson’s the key return. As we all watched last week, waiting to see how the Patriots would fare without Gronkowski, we saw two things. One, the Patriots can still move the ball down the field. But two, when they get to the red zone, without Gronk, it gets rougher. Having Dobson’s height in the red zone will be absolutely crucial, and Thompkins can help there as well.
Also key to this game, of course, is that NO ONE ELSE GETS HURT. But obviously, this is the Ravens in the dead of winter, so….yeah.
3. Can Tom Brady survive the Ravens’ defense
You’ve noticed I haven’t really mentioned the Ravens defense so far. That’s because I’d rather not talk about them. Like Beetlejuice, I’m scared that if I type “Terrell Suggs” three times, he’ll appear and knock my head off, before performing an elaborately silly celebration.
Alright so going down the line: the defensive line, fronted by Haloti Ngata, scares me. The linebackers, especially pass rushers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, scare me. The cornerbacks, headlined by Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb, scare me. And the fact that Dean Pees is the Ravens defensive coordinator scares me the most.
The key to this game is to get the ball out of Brady’s hands quickly. Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman had insane games last week, and will need to replicate their success this week. Having Dobson and Thompkins back will help. I’m guessing the Ravens won’t be focused on shutting down Shane Vereen like the Dolphins were, so having the Golden Bear back will help as well.
If Brady can stay upright, they will always be in the game. The onus is on the offensive line (which is why losing Nate Solder would be a huge blow) to keep the Ravens ferocious pass rush off of him, giving his uber-quick receivers enough time to break away in space.
Prediction: Ravens 24, Patriots 21
I’ll be honest. I have absolutely no feel for this game whatsoever. I have a lot of faith in the Patriots offense, but the Ravens defense scares me. I know that the Ravens are vulnerable on offense, but the Pats’ defense hasn’t played up to its full potential in the last few weeks.
The Patriots need this game, but the Ravens need it more. The fact that it’s played in Baltimore swings it their way. I think it’ll be close all the way, but the difference will be some absurd Justin Tucker field goal.
Plus I never like it when the Patriots go against Terrell Suggs especiallyanskdjnfjkalsnd galsndgangamnlxmngcg………………………………………….