After losing tight end Aaron Hernandez to an ankle sprain, it is likely that we will see a new-look Patriots offense on Sunday. The team struggled without the 22-year-old star in last week's loss to the Arizona Cardinals but will undoubtedly look to take advantage of a Baltimore secondary that gave up 371 yards to Michael Vick in Week 2.
The Ravens will not only look to fix their secondary woes, but they should look to revive balance in their offense.
This will mark the teams' first meeting since the 2012 AFC Championship game, which the Patriots won, 23-20. Both teams undoubtedly remember that game well and will come out firing on all cylinders.
For that reason, here's a look at everything you need to know about Sunday night's game.
Where: M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, MD
When: Sunday, Sept. 23 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Live Streaming: SNF All-Access
Betting Line: Ravens (-3), according to Bovada.
Over/Under: 49, according to Bovada.
What's at Stake?
Though both teams come into Sunday's game at 1-1 and tied atop their respective divisions, neither team can be particularly happy with its play thus far.
Hernandez's absence caused the Patriots offense to become stagnant against Arizona last week in Cardinals territory. Before missing a potential 42-yard game-winning kick at the end of regulation, Stephen Gostkowski had already kicked four field goals.
For an offense led by Tom Brady and a myriad of other weapons, getting field goals in those situations is not good enough.
Look for the Patriots to come out and try to recapture a commanding offensive presence en route to staying atop the AFC East.
On the other side of the field, the Ravens also lost a very winnable game last week in Philadelphia.
Despite four turnovers from the Eagles, Baltimore's offense struggled to take advantage due to ineffective play from Joe Flacco and a seeming abandonment of the running game. The Ravens succeed when Ray Rice runs the ball 20-plus times. Having a ratio of 42 Flacco throws to 16 Rice runs in a non-blowout is a curious decision to say the least.
RB Shane Vereen, Foot, Questionable
TE Aaron Hernandez, Ankle, Out
TE Daniel Fells, Shin, Questionable
S Bernard Pollard, Ribs, Probable
LB Paul Kruger, Back, Questionable
Fantasy Player to Watch: Ravens TE Dennis Pitta
Through two games, Pitta has been one of fantasy's biggest breakout stars. After splitting catches with fellow Ravens tight end Ed Dickson last season, Pitta emerged as Flacco's No. 1 target in Weeks 1 and 2.
The three-year veteran has 13 catches for 138 yards and a touchdown, and he easily leads Baltimore thus far with 23 targets.
One question: Can he keep it up?
That's the quandary vexing fantasy football owners throughout the nation heading into this Sunday's contest. New England's secondary has looked vastly improved in its first two games, but no one is expecting Pitta to grab six or seven balls per game for the rest of the year.
If he can come out and have yet another top 10 day at his position, fantasy owners across the nation should finally feel comfortable making Pitta an every-week start.
What They're Saying
After the Patriots lost to the Cardinals last week, many were ready to point the blame finger. Some thought offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called a poor game, while others used a myriad of other excuses factors (including the trendy "replacement referees did it").
The Boston Herald's Greg A Bedard had his own theory;
The Patriots inexcusably lost to the Cardinals, 20-18, Sunday, and it didn’t happen because of play calling, the referees, the offensive line, or special teams (though the latter certainly didn’t help).
It happened because of the offense’s mind-numbing lack of execution on third down that brought back memories of the final quarter and a half of the Super Bowl.
Also a recipient of offensive criticism is Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, particularly about the lack of running plays. Though he defended some of the calls, Harbaugh did acknowledge it was fair to criticize the team's reliance on the pass.
Via Robert Klemko of USA Today:
We thought about running the ball, yeah, but we thought we had some good calls. I think that's fair. You could have called a draw or something there, but you know they were bringing some heat, and they were hugging the backs too. It would have been hit or miss.
Patriots Key Player: WR Wes Welker
After seemingly falling out of favor with the coaching staff in the season's first two weeks, look for Welker to have a vastly expanded workload without Hernandez in the lineup.
Kellen Winslow's signing with the Patriots this week undoubtedly means that the team will continue using sets with multiple tight ends, but it's unlikely he will know the offense well enough to contribute on Sunday.
Welker, on the other hand, has been Brady's security blanket for years. With the offense in on-the-fly adjustment mode against the Cardinals last week, he went right in the game and caught five passes for 95 yards.
Expect similar things from the 31-year-old this week. The Ravens will look to bring pressure on Brady, meaning he's going to need throws off quick reads and underneath routes for the offense to stay effective.
That's Welker's specialty. If the Patriots hope to win on Sunday, it's necessary that he has a huge game.
Ravens Key Player: RB Ray Rice
We've already touched on Rice's lack of carries last week. Nonetheless, a quick look at the stat sheet indicates this is a trend for Baltimore, not a blip on the radar.
Thus far, Rice has just 26 carries this season—the lowest total of his five-year career through two games (albeit only by one).
Granted, he has been involved in the passing game, catching nine passes for 78 yards. That still gives the 25-year-old star just 35 touches—a total that is far too low considering Rice's status as the Ravens' best offensive weapon.
It's likely that the Patriots come out early and try to turn this game into a high-scoring affair. The Ravens looked vulnerable against the pass last week in Philadelphia, and New England will undoubtedly try to exploit those deficiencies.
Handing the ball off to Rice will be necessary to slow the game's pace down while giving the Baltimore defense a chance to rest.
If the Ravens' running back does not get 25-plus touches on Sunday, look for the Patriots to win this game quite handily.
While the Patriots' loss to the Cardinals simply looked like a one-week blip in Week 2, the Ravens' loss to the Eagles left open a bunch of concerns.
There is no one better equip to take advantage of other teams' weaknesses than Bill Belichick and his coaching staff.
Look for New England to right the ship on Sunday in an easier-than-expected victory.
Score Prediction: Patriots 31, Ravens 20
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