It's hard to ask for a much more intriguing Week 16 matchup than the one between the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots.
And if current history holds, it will be the Ravens earning the crucial win.
The first obvious advantage for the Ravens is that this game will be played in Baltimore. They are 6-1 at home, while the Patriots are just 3-4 on the road this season. And recent history also favors the Ravens, as they beat the Patriots twice last year, including in the AFC Championship Game.
The Ravens also come into this game more desperate than the Patriots. The Ravens are fighting for their playoff lives and know if they win their last two games they'll win the AFC North and reach the postseason.
And as we saw in last year's run to the Super Bowl, the Ravens seem to only improve at this time of the year.
Plus, Baltimore's defense has played really well of late—it's held opponents to 20 or fewer points in four of the past six weeks—and the offense is doing just enough to win.
It might not be sexy, but with Justin Tucker emerging as one of the league's top kickers (35-of-37 on field goals this season, with 11 kicks of 40 to 49 yards and seven kicks of 50 or more yards) and the defense playing well, the Ravens are doing just enough to win each week.
Of course, the Ravens have been trying to get Ray Rice and the running game going all year, and the Patriots might have the antidote for those woes. New England allows 132.5 rushing yards per game, 31st in the NFL, and Baltimore would be wise to turn to the running game rather than ask Joe Flacco to do everything through the air.
It's a familiar refrain in Baltimore, but in this case, it could be the difference between a playoff berth and a disappointing season.
Meanwhile, the Patriots are far from being at full strength. They are without their top offensive weapon, Rob Gronkowski, and that's a major loss—with Gronk out of the lineup this year, they've scored 23 or fewer points five times. With him, they dipped below that number just once.
The Patriots survived without him earlier in the season because the defense was playing well, but they've since endured injuries to Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo and have given up 24 or more points in four straight games.
Of course, the Patriots are fighting for a playoff spot as well, believe it or not. They could still miss the playoffs altogether if they lose two straight, the Ravens and Miami Dolphins win out, and the Cincinnati Bengals win this week.
It's a lot that would need to happen, sure, but it's still a possibility. In the end, expect the Patriots to at least drop this game, keeping the Ravens in the running for the AFC North title.
The Ravens win, 23-21.
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