Two of the AFC's finest, the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens, meet Sunday night for what is sure to be a down-to-the-wire kind of game. It doesn't matter that both teams are coming off tough losses; both of these clubs are the real deal.
Can the Patriots squeeze out a win with a shaky offensive line and without their star tight end Aaron Hernandez? That is yet to be seen, but we can still speculate as to which areas of the game will affect the outcome the most.
This slideshow will highlight where the game will be won/lost from a Patriots perspective.
You always want to stop the run, but when you play the Ravens, stopping the run is pivotal.
If that happens again, the Patriots will lose the game.
However, with the "SEC D" linebacker corps made up of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower, the 2012 version of New England's front seven looks well equipped to slow down one of the league's elite running backs.
After all, they did hold Chris Johnson to just four yards back in Week 1.
The Patriots offensive line looked pretty bad against the Cardinals last week as they gave up four sacks and countless pressures.
The good news for the Patriots is that the Ravens are without former Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs and haven't been putting together much of a pass rush.
The Pats will also most likely have starting right guard Dan Connolly back in the lineup, and their Pro Bowl right tackle Sebastian Vollmer—who has been splitting time with Marcus Cannon—should be promoted to full-time duties after recovering from a back ailment.
With all things considered, it would be surprising if the Patriots offensive line puts forth another lackluster performance.
If they do, they won't win.
The Patriots defense has looked nothing like the squad that ranked 31st in league a season ago. In fact, as it stands today, the Patriots are ranked second in league in total defense.
Before you get all huffy-puffy in the comment section, I know that two games is certainly not a sufficient sample size to accurately rank a defense. But the fact that they are at the top of the league is certainly encouraging.
They seem to have found a consistent pass rush, the secondary looks much improved, and linebackers have the potential to be the one of the best groups in all of football.
Joe Flacco is no Joe Montana, but his quarterbacking is light years ahead of Jake Locker and Kevin Kolb.
We touched upon stopping Rice, but if the Pats can also limit Flacco and his receiving targets like the speedy Torrey Smith, the Ravens are going to have a long day.
Tom Brady has Pro Bowlers Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd to throw the football to, but with Aaron Hernandez out for a few weeks (per Jon Benne of SB Nation), someone will still need to step it up in his absence.
Following the loss to the Cardinals, the Patriots almost immediately re-signed Deion Branch and also brought in the Hernandez-like tight end Kellen Winslow (per Patriots.com).
Can Brady and Branch make it rain like the good ol' days? Can Winslow return to his Pro Bowl form?
We'll have to wait and see, but someone (or everyone) will have to step up against one of the NFL's top pass defenses if the Patriots want to leave M&T Stadium with a win.