Bill Belichick will face a familiar nemesis in Baltimore this Sunday.
The Patriots can clinch the AFC East title with a win or tie—a loss or tie by the Miami Dolphins also gets the job done—and can even clinch a first-round bye if the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts have bad days.
If the Patriots lose, however, their playoff chances might hinge on beating the Buffalo Bills in Week 17.
Here is what New England needs to do to wrap things up in time for Christmas.
Patriots Defense vs. Ravens Offense
Which Ravens player should the Patriots try to take away?
It isn't difficult in theory. Stop the run, lock down the deep ball and tackle underneath. If the Patriots can execute that simple game plan, they will get off the field. Unfortunately, it won't be that easy on Sunday.
If New England's defensive backs can stay healthy, they should be able to check Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones down the field. I expect safeties Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty to play deep the majority of the game, which could stress the linebackers trying to stop the run.
However, stopping the run might be the—it is shocking to say—easiest part of the plan. Ray Rice is banged up, and the interior line for the Ravens has been a problem for them all year. Defensive linemen Sealver Siliga, Joe Vellano and Chris Jones should have a good chance of continuing Rice's struggles against the likes of Gino Gradkowski and A.Q. Shipley.
If the deep ball and running game are taken away, look for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to look for his dynamic tight end Dennis Pitta. Coach Bill Belichick mentioned Pitta's play in his weekly conference call:
Excellent player. [He] does a really good job. [He's] a key guy in the offense that Joe [Flacco] has a lot of confidence in and goes to him in critical situations – third down, red area, end of the game and two-minute type of situations. He's a go-to guy and a guy that has had a serious injury, but looks like he's come back from it well and worked hard in rehab. He's made good contributions for them since he's been back. [He's] an impressive player.
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia needs to have the scheme and personnel available to check Pitta on third down.
Patriots Offense vs. Ravens Defense
Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees knows the Patriots well. He held the same position for New England from 2006-09.
He is going to pressure Tom Brady whenever possible and not give him any easy throws. Outside linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs are going to be tough to deal with for whichever two tackles the Patriots use on Sunday.
If Nate Solder can't go, Logan Mankins is likely to get the start at left tackle. Blocking the edges is going to be key in giving Brady enough time to find the open receiver.
Brady wants the ball in his hands but not for long. He explained what he thinks of Suggs and the Ravens defense in Wednesday's press conference, via CSNNE.com's Mary Paoletti:
He's a great player. He's always been a great player. He presents a lot of problems for an offensive line, for an offense. He's big, he's rangy, he's powerful. He plays the run and the pass. For a guy that's that size and how athletic he is, to play the way he does is amazing. He's done it for a long time. Then he got injured last year, comes back, plays great toward the end of the year, has a great offseason obviously and hasn't missed a game this year.
Between him and [Elvis] Dumervil, the way they rush the quarterback, you don't have a lot of time to stand back there and figure out what to do with the ball. They force you to throw the ball quickly and then they have Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb and [Corey] Graham that can all cover. That's really the challenge. You have to figure out a way to get the ball out of your hands. But they're pretty good at coverage too. That's why they're one of the best defenses in the league.
Much like against Miami, expect the Patriots to use a variety of screen plays and quick throws to keep Suggs and Dumervil thinking.
If Aaron Dobson is healthy, the fake screen play is begging to be used. Having a credible deep threat like Dobson available will go a long way in helping Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Austin Collie uncover underneath.
What They're Saying
The Patriots didn't skimp when it came to drafting players from Rutgers in 2013. Linebacker Steve Beauharnais hasn't seen much playing time, but defensive backs Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan have logged a solid amount of snaps in their rookie season.
The Rutgers defenders will be facing Ravens running back Ray Rice—another famous Rutgers alum—on Sunday.
In a conference call with Patriots media, Rice talked about the abundance of Rutgers players on New England's roster:
Man, you know they’ve [Rutgers football] got a lot of guys up there. It just goes to show, you know [Bill] Belichick’s got a thing for them. They come there, they work hard, and they’re not problematic. They all come there just blue collar and they get the job done. It’s crazy just to look at the secondary and see how many of the Rutgers guys are in there. I’m like, ‘Man.’ It’s just a testament to the hard work [of the Rutgers players]. My hats off to them for going in, number one, and not just getting up there and be happy to be a Patriot, but actually going out there and making plays. That’s a pretty spectacular thing to do.
Tale of the Tape
Joe Flacco may have the big contract—and a sprained MCL according to Adam Schefter of ESPN.com—but Tom Brady still has the better arm and eyes. Whoever has the better day in the red zone might decide this game.
Ray Rice is banged up, while the Patriots' three-headed monster of Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount is finally rounding into shape. Look for the Patriots to probe the Ravens defensive front early and often.
With Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins still not 100 percent, the depth just isn't there for the Patriots. While Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman are efficient moving the ball down the field, Ravens receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones are threats to score on every play.
While the Patriots have lost their best two tight ends from last year—Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez—the Ravens are getting healthy at the right time. Dennis Pitta is tough to defend.
Marshal Yanda and Eugene Monroe have played well for Baltimore, but their compatriots on the line have been abysmal. If Nate Solder is able to play—he suffered his second concussion of the year in Week 15—the Patriots could have a slight advantage here.
The Patriots defensive line has some standouts—Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are playing well—but the Ravens core of Haloti Ngata, Arthur Jones and Chris Canty are all playing at a high level this year.
Total QB Pressures through week 15 Rob Ninkovich - 57 (6 sacks) Chandler Jones - 56 (13) Elvis Dumervil - 57 (10) Terrell Suggs - 56 (9)— PatriotsXLVIII (@PatriotsXLVIII) December 19, 2013
Dont'a Hightower is playing his best football at this point of the year, but Elvis Dumervil and Daryl Smith are playing lights out. Terrell Suggs can still bring the heat as well. Ray Lewis hasn't been missed on the field.
Each team has a fantastic group of defenders in its secondary. Whichever group can get its hands on the football more often could easily decide the outcome of this game.
Justin Tucker and Stephen Gostkowski just don't miss field goals. Sam Koch and Ryan Allen don't miss many punts. Expect either Julian Edelman or Jacoby Jones to impact this game with a big return.
Overall: Patriots 2-3-4
The tale of the tape favors the Ravens by a slim margin, but the truth is that these teams are rather even. Late in the fourth quarter, I wouldn't be surprised to see Gostkowski or Tucker out on the field with the game on the line.
Wednesday's Injury Report Analysis
Did Not Participate: Josh Boyce, Nate Solder
Limited Participation: Danny Amendola, Kyle Arrington, Marcus Cannon, Tom Brady, Alfonzo Dennard, Aaron Dobson, Dane Fletcher, Steve Gregory, Michael Hoomanawanui, Brandon Spikes, Will Svitek, Aqib Talib, Kenbrell Thompkins
Full Participation: None
Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins were both limited participants, which bodes well for their chances come Sunday. Josh Boyce and Nate Solder, however, weren't so lucky. Their availability against Baltimore is certainly in doubt.
Matthew Slater and Shane Vereen were removed from this week's report.
For the Ravens, Dallas Clark and Ray Rice both missed practice, although each is expected to play.