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Patriots

What To Watch For: Patriots’ First Big Test

By Matthew Geagan, CBSBoston
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Patriots quarterback Tom Brady celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship against the Baltimore Ravens. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship against the Baltimore Ravens. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

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New England Patriots

BOSTON (CBS) –  After matchups with the Titans and Cardinals to begin the season, Sunday night’s Patriots-Ravens game should have New England fans buzzing about a playoff-like tilt.

“We’re going to have to play almost a perfect game to walk away on the road with a victory,” nose tackle Vince Wilfork said earlier this week. “This is a good Baltimore football team. I think this team now is probably one of the best teams Baltimore has had.”

In years past when these two teams meet up, they certainly do not disappoint. The Patriots eked out a 23-20 win in the AFC Championship in Gillette last January, punching their ticket to Super Bowl XLVI on a missed Billy Cundiff field goal. The Pats took their 2010 regular season meeting by that same score, but needed overtime (and a monster game from the newly returned Deion Branch) to pull it off.

We can stop there, because going back to the 2009 playoffs – also at Gillette – will bring back some pretty awful memories. But before that, the Patriots claimed their two prior meetings by a combined nine points.

Chances are Sunday night will be another one of those grind-em-out, close-till-the-end football games we’ve come to love when the Patriots and Ravens get together. Here are four things to watch out for throughout the game.

New England’s First Big Test

While the Cardinals proved to be a lot more competitive than many assumed, this will be the first big test for Bill Belichick’s youngest Patriots team.

They take on potentially their biggest AFC foe, on the road, following a loss. There is plenty in just that short sentence to test their mental toughness, but then there is the fact the Ravens are also coming off a loss, and one they haven’t stopped talking about since 8 p.m. last Sunday. To say they were a little miffed at the outcome is the understatement of the year.

But the questions lean heavily on the Patriots’ side when it comes to their first big test of the season.

Now in his first year as the premiere back, how will Stevan Ridley handle Baltimore’s bruising rush defense? Should he get past Haloti Ngata on the line, he’ll have Ray Lewis and rookie Courtney Upshaw to deal with, and then Bernard Pollard in the secondary. No one has broken a tackle against the Ravens so far this season, so will Ridley be able to break those 15-20 yards runs he had in Weeks 1 and 2? The Patriots will certainly need them, which will go a long way in taking the crowd out of the game. But what they need most from Ridley is continued consistency.

A lot of that is on the offensive line too, which will have plenty of tests of their own on Sunday. They were under scrutiny all preseason, which returned after their performance against the Cardinals. Now they have the Ravens’ pass rush to worry about, making things even tougher.

Also dealing with question marks for New England will be the pair of defensive rookies. How will Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower handle their first real test in a hostile territory? Sure they had a “Blue Out” to deal with in Tennessee, but the differences between a 1 p.m. game in Tennessee and a Sunday night game in Baltimore doesn’t even need to be discussed.

They also have the task of containing Ray Rice on their hands, and while the Patriots have done a stellar job shutting down the run thus far, Rice is a much different animal than a dwindling Chris Johnson (who has 21 rush yards on 19 attempts for the season, 11 rush yards fewer than his quarterback Jake Locker has on four attempts) and the Arizona collection of Beanie Wells, Ryan Williams and LaRod Stephens-Howling.

This is the Patriots’ first true test of the season. A win would put them back on track at 2-1 and brimming with confidence after most of it was deflated following last week’s loss. A loss this week would put the Patriots under .500 for the first time since 2003, and behind Baltimore in the AFC standings. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if the Patriots lose, as long as they put up a good fight in a hostile territory.

Either way, this game is going to be a building block toward the playoffs for the Patriots – even if it is just Week 3.

Baltimore’s No-Huddle Offense

The Ravens have switched over to a more passer-friendly, no-huddle offense despite having one of the best playmakers in Rice lining up in the backfield. Joe Flacco and crew didn’t run the no-huddle all that well in Philadelphia (thanks to noisy Eagles fans) and the fact they had Flacco throwing on a crucial late-game third-and-1 – and again on the following fourth down – is kind of mind-boggling. Sure he has an improved group of receivers in Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Anquan Boldin, but there is little doubt Ray Rice wouldn’t have picked up a yard given two chances (although they did pass it his way on fourth down).

So why the change by Baltimore?

“We’ve seen the success a lot of teams have had with it and we’ve had to defend it,” said head coach John Harbaugh. “We’ve always had it as part of what we’re doing. There were a lot of factors that came together to move us in that direction, but every week is different. Every game plan is different. I would say a lot of what the Patriots have done over the years has been something that’s positively influenced us in that direction.”

So now, because of the Patriots, the Ravens are banking on the no-huddle keeping opposing defenses on their toes. And the Patriots are expecting it come Sunday night.

“It changes the tempo of the game, giving the offense the chance to speed things up,” corner Devin McCourty said of the no-huddle. “For defenses, a lot of times you have to adjust quickly and get back on the ball. It’s something we really need to be prepared for. Knowing they’re going to do it helps when you try to prepare, but it’s definitely going to present a challenge for us.

“We work hard conditioning-wise here, and it’s something we focus on being in shape and being ready to go against any type of offense,” McCourty continued. “Definitely in camp it always helps that our offense can change the tempo. We feel condition-wise we should be in shape and be able to handle it.”

The good news for the Patriots is that the defense has plenty of practice going against the no-huddle. With a young group, they should be able to keep up with the fast tempo. But a key will be to not get too overzealous in defending the pass, because Rice is just a few steps away from breaking a touchdown run at any given moment.

Baltimore’s D – Young and Old

Defense has been the name of the game for Baltimore since Ray Lewis was drafted in 1996, and continues to be that way. Lewis, now 37, still anchors the group with the help of safety Ed Reed, with Baltimore still a dominant defense despite what the stats say through the first two weeks.

“They’re very, very talented players, they play well within their scheme, and they complement each other well,” Brady said of the vaunted Baltimore defense. “They’re very physical, they’re very tough, they’re very smart and they really take advantage of bad offensive plays. I think more so than anything, they really capitalize on mistakes, so we’ve got to try to limit our mistakes. We’ve got to try to be really consistent with what we’re doing, communicate well so that we’re all on the same page and really just don’t go out there and hand them the ball like we’ve done plenty of times over the past few years.”

The Patriots have had their fair share of problems with Lewis and Reed, and there is plenty of respect for both future Hall of Famers on the New England sideline.

“Those guys have anchored that defense for a long time, and a very good defense. I don’t know how you could go much higher than what those two players have done in their careers for that football team, both playing together for a long time, very, very well,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said of Reed and Lewis.

One factor going against the Ravens is they don’t have noted Brady nemesis Terrell Suggs. Sideline with an Achilles injury, Suggs won’t be chasing down Brady or any other Patriot on Sunday, and that’s a good thing. But in his place, the Patriots can expect to meet Baltimore’s 2012 first-round draft pick Courtney Upshaw out of Alabama. Dont’a Hightower’s former teammate has given Baltimore an instant shot of youth in their defense, with 10 tackles in his first two games.

When the Patriots get their big play opportunities on Sunday night, they better take advantage. They don’t come around very often against Baltimore, and with their veteran corps and injection of youth on the defense, even one missed chance could change the game.

The Less-Welker, More-Edelman Madness

It’s getting pretty silly, as snap counts are now one of the most talked about topics in New England. Are the Patriots “phasing out” Wes Welker? Is Julian Edelman slowly replacing him as the New England slot receiver? Is Welker on the trading block?

Everyone has a different hypothesis, theory and answer to all of it. I say we just watch some football and let the situation dictate itself.

Granted, Welker has seen less of the field over the first two weeks, and not starting either game raises plenty of justifiable eyebrows. Welker’s three catches in Week 1 against the Titans didn’t help, but he led the Pats with 95 receiving yards on five catches last week against the Cardinals, a game in which Tom Brady threw his way 11 times.

The bottom line is Brady will throw the ball to whoever is open; whether that be Welker, Edelman, Rob Gronkowski or Brandon Lloyd – who he sometimes throws to when he isn’t open. Against Baltimore, those opportunities aren’t going to present themselves too often.

Welker hasn’t had much success against the Ravens, but with Aaron Hernandez going down his role should increase. In that same breath, so should Julian Edelman’s. Let the madness continue … .

Tune in to the Patriots-Ravens game Sunday night on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Patriots Preview begins at 5pm with full postgame coverage following the game!

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