It's what everyone knows happened but isn't supposed to talk about if they are Patriots fans. It's what Ravens fans dare to hope might happen again.
It's the elephant in the room- the result of the game the last time these two teams met, a one-sided beat down of the New England Patriots at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, in particular the Ravens' ground attack. Joe Flacco had one of the worst games ever for a quarterback that won a playoff game, completing four of 10 passes for 34 yards.
Ray Rice scored on the first play from scrimmage (pictured), going 83 yards for the touchdown, and at the end of the first quarter, Baltimore had constructed a 24-point lead that could not be overcome, even by Tom Terrific and the Patriots' high flying offense.
It was also the Ravens' first ever victory over the Patriots, a feat they hope to replicate this Sunday at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots made headlines this week by trading future Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss to the Minnesota Vikings and then immediately afterward by trading for one-time Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch. Still, few dispute that Moss's absence will change the way the Patriots try to attack the Ravens.
There are several key players to watch in this game; read on to find out which ones you should look for on Sunday.
"Huh?" I hear you asking. "Why are you thinking that Boldin will be the Ravens' big play guy this week? Didn't you just spend the whole opening slide talking about how the Ravens performed bodily functions on the Patriots using the running game?"
It's simple—the Ravens don't have games like that very often. It's nice when they do, at least for Ravens fans, but expecting the Ravens to go and beat the Patriots in exactly the same way that happened in Foxboro last season is simply unrealistic.
If you look at game film, the Patriots' linebackers are now much better at attacking downhill into the running lanes, rather than allowing the opposing offense's guards to work up and block them at the second level, which was what allowed Rice to get free on the big run to start the game and on other runs later. Bill Belichick is famous for taking away an opponent's most dangerous weapon in the game plan.
Say what you will about the Ravens' improved passing attack, but they just showed last week that first and foremost, the Ravens are still most dangerous when they get their ground game going. The Ravens simply wore down the Bronco defense by repeatedly pounding the rock, eventually resulting in a 30-yard Willis McGahee touchdown run that sealed the win. By the way, that play came after Rice had gotten nine straight touches. History suggests that Bill Belichick will try and take away Ray Rice, one of the game's better running backs, and force QB Joe Flacco to beat the Patriots through the air.
That's where Boldin comes in. He's clearly the most talented receiver the Ravens have—a true No. 1 wideout. Because the Patriots don't have elite cornerbacks, that means Boldin will be expected to beat the coverage, even if it is rolled his way, and make big plays for his third-year quarterback.
In the 2010 NFL Draft, the New England Patriots selected the two top tight ends on their board, with designations "Y" (traditional two-way, blocking tight end) and "F" (nontraditional "mover type, chiefly used as a big receiver in space). Those two guys are Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, respectively.
It is well known that the Patriots subscribe to the theory of running back by committee, as do most other NFL franchises; however, despite the emergence of BenJarvus Green-Ellis (henceforth referred to as "Law Firm" because his name sounds like a law firm), the Patriots' ground attack still isn't scaring anybody.
That means that without Moss, other guys are going to have to step up. The name that comes to mind is shifty slot receiver Wes Welker, who seems to be his old self, despite the fact that this year is his first returning from a season-ending ACL injury at the end of last season (Welker did not play in the playoff game). However, with Moss gone, the Ravens will probably be able to roll more of their coverages to Welker. He'll have his moments- he's simply too talented and too targeted to get shut down completely- but expect the Patriots to become more of a two tight end offense with Gronkowski and Hernandez.
Hernandez, in particular, is a tough coverage assignment for a linebacker—too fast—and also for a safety—too big. Expect New England to look for Hernandez, especially in the open field outside of the red zone, to come up with some big plays. If the Ravens can stop Hernandez, they can probably keep the still powerful New England offense from running up the score.
I discussed it extensively on the opening slide, but it bears repeating nonetheless. The Ravens were remarkably effective last year running straight into the teeth of the Patriots' defense, which is anchored by All-Pro NT Vince Wilfork. In the matchup last season, Wilfork largely held his own and occupied two blockers, the problem was that the Patriots' LBs were too reactive, often allowing Ravens guards Ben Grubbs and then-guard Marshal Yanda (now Baltimore's RT) to work up to the second level and seal them off.
It is highly unlikely that the same game plan will work twice to perfection. However, if the Ravens choose to commit heavily to the running game this week—or get out to a lead and start running to grind away the clock—watch the Patriots' linebackers to see if they step up into the hole, behind the guards, to seal off the hole. They likely will—but it was this matchup, more than anything else, which accounted for the Ravens' offensive success last January, so it definitely is worth watching.
The departure of longtime Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan two years ago to become head coach of the New York Jets changed Baltimore's defensive identity, in my opinion for the better—Baltimore no longer blitzes the house at all times, which good quarterbacks tend to read and pick apart. Instead, Baltimore tends to rely on three and four man pressures, dropping seven or eight men into coverage.
That puts the onus on Baltimore's most talented pass rusher, Terrell Suggs, to create pressure on the quarterback. Typically, Suggs's matchup with the left tackle would be a marquee matchup against the Patriots, who, with Randy Moss, were famous for going after the deep ball. However, the Moss trade means that the Patriots are likely to use more quick-hitting short and intermediate routes, allowing Suggs and Co. less time to get to Tom Brady. If Suggs can get consistent pressure, it might dissuade the Patriots from trying to go for too many home runs- those take time to set up.
Suggs is the Ravens' best chance to prevent a deep pass play, which brings us to...
...this guy. After the Randy Moss trade, Brandon Tate became a hot commodity in fantasy leagues; suddenly he was the Patriots' best home run threat. Tate is a young player with great deep speed to blow the top off of defensive coverages, but without Moss's otherworldly combination of height, jumping ability, and ball skills that made defensive coordinators stay awake at night. If the Patriots are going to try and set up the long ball- and they probably will at some point- it will most likely go to Brandon Tate. If the Ravens can stop this guy from beating them deep, it would obviously help their chances to win the game.
However, Tate may be most dangerous as a return man. He's already returned two kickoffs for touchdowns this season, and one came in the Patriots' last game against the Miami Dolphins—one of two special teams touchdowns for the Patriots that night. This puts the onus on Baltimore's coverage units, but also Ravens K Billy Cundiff to continue getting his kickoffs deep into the end zone for touchbacks—if he can do that, Tate's chances to return will be minimized.
If Tate gets into the end zone, New England's chances to win shoot through the roof. It's now or never for this unproven young speedster.
When analyzing Bill Belichick's tendencies as a defensive coach, he is famous for taking away his opponent's top threat. My best guess is that Belichick will choose to take away Ravens RB Ray Rice, putting the pressure on Anquan Boldin to be the guy who bails out Joe Flacco. However, if I'm wrong, that means that Derrick Mason will become the primary option in the passing game. Even if the Ravens do manage to get the ground game going, don't expect ridiculous numbers and for the Ravens to win the game with Flacco completing four passes like the last time around.
In a PPR league, expect that Mason will get his looks and his catches—who knows, he might even get in the end zone. If you need a wideout this week, I wouldn't shy away from starting Derrick Mason.
There are a couple of games that can compete with this one in terms of appeal this week—it certainly isn't the only big game with a compelling storyline. However, the game is extremely significant for both teams.
Coming off the bye week, the Patriots are 8-0 in their last eight tries, and they are notoriously difficult to beat at home. With extra preparation, it would seem at first glance like the Patriots are primed to move to 4-1 and keep pace with the AFC East-leading New York Jets, who play at Denver this week—a game the Jets should win. If the Patriots win, they earn a crucial head-to-head tiebreaker over a likely playoff team- whether that ends up edging another team out for a wild card spot or possibly for divisional seeding down the line.
For the Ravens, it's a golden opportunity for yet another huge road victory. If the Ravens manage to win the game, then they will continue to have the league's best record at 5-1, with head to head tiebreakers on the road against both the Patriots and Jets, likely playoff contenders. With the hapless Buffalo Bills in Baltimore next week—a game the Ravens should win—the Ravens have a chance to enter their bye week at 6-1, firmly in control of their own destiny with a majority of their home games still left to play after the bye.
Bragging rights and playoff seeding are both on the line at Gillette Stadium this week—the Patriots are out to prove that the playoff loss was a fluke and the Ravens are out to make it into a pattern and get another tough road win, which would be their first over the Patriots in the regular season.
This game features a top flight offense (Patriots) against a top flight defense (Ravens), a classic strength vs. strength scenario. However, on the other side of the ball, the Patriots defense is young and inexperienced but faces an experienced and talented Ravens offense. I expect Baltimore to win over the Patriots in a relatively high scoring game by a score of 31-24.