The Pats line will have their hands full with an aggressive Ravens front-seven in Week 3.
Quarterbacks Tom Brady and Joe Flacco looked like world-beaters in their season debuts. Both came crashing back to Earth in Week 2. But look for Brady to be the one to make a full recovery in next week's Sunday Night match-up between the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots.
Yes, the Ravens defense is arguably the best in the league. Yes, the Pats offense struggled mightily against a marginally worse D in the Arizona Cardinals. Yes, match-up nightmare TE Aaron Hernandez is still hurt.
But here's a bold assertion for you: the Pats match up better with Baltimore than they did last season, when they defeated the Ravens 23-20 in the AFC Championship Game.
The Pats have a more dynamic offense than they did last year, one that can make plays at all three levels and boasts a complete feature back (Stevan Ridley) for the first time in years.
On defense, it's already clear they've finally got play-makers in the front-seven in rookies LB Dont'a Hightower and DE Chandler Jones. The secondary doesn't look nearly as porous as it did last year, either.
They'll do it again Sunday night, on the way to delivering a statement win in Week 3.
RB Ray Rice is an elite offensive option. The Pats have to shut him down.
The Patriots tend to key on their opponent's best player, and dedicate themselves to shutting him down.
They did it in Week 1 with Tennessee Titans RB Chris Johnson, holding him to just four yards on 11 carries. They employed the same strategy in Week 2 against WR Larry Fitzgerald, yielding only one catch for four yards to the All-Pro receiver.
New England will have their hands full in trying to stop dynamic Ravens RB Ray Rice.
Rice has some of the best lower-body strength in the league. Though he's not the biggest back, he runs hard and churns his legs to add yards after contact. He has the shiftiness to get to the second level and the physicality to dust tacklers.
Rice has burned the Patriots in the past, including on an 83 yard TD run in the Divisional playoff game against New England in 2009.
But this season, the Pats are uniquely equipped to stop the run, even against elite rushers like Rice.
The Pats boast a ferocious front-seven that has allowed a combined 48 yards to featured backs in their first two games. Their linebacking corps of Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and rookie Dont'a Hightower matches up favorably with any in the league.
Stout DT Vince Wilfork dominates the interior, and Chandler Jones already sets the edge at an elite level.
New England will look to take away Rice and force Flacco to pass. They'll succeed on Sunday, and that's a big reason why they'll win.
Gronk, as always, will be a big part of the game plan as a blocker and receiver.
Ravens DE Haloti Ngata has the size, bull-rushing strength, and speed to wreak havoc on this shaky Pats front.
But he won't, at least not next week.
The Pats kept Ngata quiet in the AFC Championship Game, and even with a worse offensive line, they'll do it again in Week 3.
Look for steady doses of TE Daniel Fells as a chip-blocker to cover the C-gap. He'll help prevent Ngata from gaining the outside on second-year LT Nate Solder when Ngata lines up at right end in the Ravens base 3-4 D.
When Ngata lines up at DT, he'll draw double-teams courtesy of all-pro guard Logan Mankins.
New England will employ the same strategy on offense as they do on D: disrupt the other team's star. While LB Ray Lewis and S Ed Reed still roam the Ravens D, it's clear at this point that the best defensive playmaker on the Ravens is Ngata.
But you heard it here first: he won't be making plays in Week 3.
Remember when Brady was automatic late in the game? We'll see Tom Terrific again soon.
It's been a while since Tom Brady has engineered his trademark late-game magic.
It won't be much longer.
This isn't just a he's due prediction (though he is, and you could feel vintage, efficient Brady returning in the fourth quarter TD drive against the Cardinals).
The Ravens and Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron have opted for an up-tempo, no-huddle offense in 2012, and the toll it has taken on their defense was evident in Week 2.
The most lopsided quarter was the third, in which the Ravens only had the ball for four-and-a-half minutes, all pass plays. The defense was left on the field for ten minutes in the quarter, during which time Baltimore gave up ten points to let the Eagles back in the game.
The D will be gassed again in Week 3.
Cameron will look to take advantage of a ho-hum New England secondary through the air. The Pats will pound the ball with Ridley through much of the first half to open up play-action.
Then, as he did in Week 2, Brady will exercise his surgical precision to take advantage of an exhausted front-seven.
This time, though, the late-game heroics will be enough to earn the Pats a win.