By Gregory Hunt
The New England Patriots hope to finally clinch the AFC East title when they face the Baltimore Ravens Sunday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium. This game was originally scheduled to be the Sunday Night Football game on NBC, but it was flexed out of that prime-time spot by the NFL in favor of the Chicago Bears/Philadelphia Eagles game. The Patriots will instead play on CBS at 4:25 p.m. EST.
Monday night’s 18-16 win over the Detroit Lions gave the Ravens a four-game winning streak and an 8-6 record going into their meeting with the Patriots. The Ravens are 1-6 all-time in the regular season against the Patriots but 2-1 against New England in the playoffs. This rivalry that dates back to 1996 when the old Cleveland Browns franchise moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens. The teams have split the last two AFC Championship Games, both played at Gillette Stadium; New England won 23-20 on January 22, 2012 and Baltimore won 28-13 on January 20, 2013. Their last meeting in the regular season was on September 23, 2012, when the Ravens won 31-30 in Baltimore.
Ravens On Offense
Over the past two seasons, there has been considerable debate as to whether Baltimore’s Joe Flacco is truly an elite quarterback, but the bottom line is that he is the defending Super Bowl-winning quarterback, having defeated the San Francisco 49ers 34-31 in Super Bowl XLVII. As such, he must be treated as a serious threat by opposing defenses. However, from a statistical standpoint he’s not having a great year this season. He had already thrown 17 interceptions going into Monday’s game against Detroit, and his current passer rating is his lowest in the six seasons he has been Baltimore’s starting quarterback.
Baltimore’s most productive weapon on offense is running back Ray Rice, who is first on the team in rushing yards and second on the team in pass receptions. However, his per-carry rushing average of only 3.0 yards indicates how much trouble the team has experienced in moving the ball on the ground. The Ravens have only six rushing touchdowns the entire season, while rookie wide receiver Marlon Brown has six touchdown receptions by himself. Wide receiver Torrey Smith has more than twice as many receiving yards as any of his teammates, and tight end Dennis Pitta is finally healthy again after missing the first 13 weeks of the season with a hip injury.
Ravens On Defense
Thanks in part to the departures of safety Ed Reed and linebacker Ray Lewis, this year’s Baltimore defense isn’t as formidable as it has been for the past decade, but it’s still pretty darn good. The Ravens are ranked in the NFL’s top ten in total defense and the linebacker tandem of Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs have combined for nearly 20 sacks. The pass rush helps make up for defense secondary that has made only nine interceptions this season. Only four other teams in the NFL have fewer. Against the run, the Ravens are giving up only 3.8 yards per rush, which is tied for 4th best in the league.
All season long, New England has struggled against better-than-average defenses. While the Patriots moved the ball fairly well last Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, they didn’t take maximum advantage of every scoring opportunity, so they will need to do much better in Baltimore in order to pull out a victory. Look for quarterback Tom Brady to make a lot of short passes to running back Shane Vereen in order to neutralize the Baltimore pass rush. The New England defense has forced only two turnovers in the past three games, so it needs to force at least two against the Ravens in order to take some pressure off the offense.
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Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on Examiner.com.