Last time the teams squared off Tom Brady looked like he was returning to form after a shaky start to the season, aided by the return of his favorite target, Wes Welker, who missed the previous two games with a knee injury.
This time a battered Brady, playing with three broken ribs, will have to face the Ravens defense without Welker, who tore both his anterior cruciate ligament and his medial collateral ligament.
The blow is devastating to the Patriots pass-happy offense. Welker led the team in receiving seven times this season, more than any other player. His 123 catches this season were the most in the NFL and set a franchise record, breaking the one he set himself in 2007.
Brady relies heavily on Welker. Without him, Brady’s completion percentage this season drops from 68 percent to 56 percent and his quarterback rating drops from 102.9 to a measly 68.9.
The opposing defense will now be able to double Randy Moss, which does not bode well for the receiver who already had been rumored to taking plays off and not caring. Whether those criticisms are true or not, Moss will be hounded hoping to turn the receiver into a malcontent and take him out of the game while Welker isn’t there to take the pressure off of him.
Julian Edelman will fill in for Welker, and so far he has been a pleasant surprise this season. Last week against the Texans the rookie out of Kent State caught ten passes for a team high 103 yards.
However, it is his first season as a wide receiver (he was a quarterback at Kansas State), he only has caught one touchdown and no one will be able to replace the trust and comfort that Brady had with Welker.
Another question is whether the rookie from a small school will be able to perform in the pressure-packed NFL playoffs, or will he have the look of a deer in headlights?
Let’s not forget that while the last matchup resulted in a win for New England there were certainly plenty of negatives and Baltimore nearly came away with the victory instead.
For starters, the Ravens nearly pulled out the comeback had it not been for Mark Clayton’s drop inside the Patriots’ 10-yard line on fourth down with 28 seconds remaining. A catch would have given Baltimore a first down and a real good shot at winning the game.
On that day Baltimore running back Ray Rice tore up the New England defense. Rice ran for 103 yards on 11 carries, which is 9.4 yards per carry. That’s nearly a first down every time he gets the hand off. By doing that the Ravens control the tempo of the game and keep Tom Brady off the field.
However, that may not be as big a factor as one would believe. In the six Patriot losses, only once did an opposing back reach 100 yards rushing (Houston Texans’ Arian Foster in week 17 rushed for 119 yards).
Also in the last meeting, Brady struggled on third down, completing only one pass in four attempts with a passer rating of 39.6 (comparatively Ravens QB Joe Flacco was 8 for 11 with two touchdowns and a passer rating of 125.2). That was with Wes Welker in the lineup. Who will Brady turn to in such key situations without him?
Still, the Patriots are at home, where they got the job done each time this season, finishing 8-0. They also have won 23 straight home games—including playoffs—that Tom Brady has started. The Patriots have won 11 consecutive playoff games at home.
Conversely Baltimore was 3-5 on the road, including their loss at Gillette Stadium.
In addition to their spotless record at home, the first three times the Patriots went undefeated at home (2003, 2004, and 2007) they won the Super Bowl.
Also, the Patriots are 5-0 all-time against the Ravens.
While Edelman will fill in for Welker in the lineup, look for Brady to spread the ball around. Fred Taylor is back and scored two touchdowns last week. Expect guys like Ben Watson, Sam Aiken, and Sammy Morris to get involved in the attack.
The Patriots have their work cut out for them. They will not replace Wes Welker. Patriots’ players always do a good job, however, of stepping up and rising to the occasion. Offensive lineman Sebastian Vollmer filled in admirably for Matt Light this season, last year saw the emergence of RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis and QB Matt Cassel, and don’t forget that Tom Brady was once an unknown injury replacement himself.
Stars went down in New England before and the franchise still was able to stand, even prosper. It won’t be easy, but like always, the Patriots should never be counted out.