BOSTON (CBS) – There will be a playoff feel to Sunday afternoon’s Patriots-Ravens tilt in Baltimore.
It is a playoff game for the Ravens, who have clawed their way back into the postseason picture after a 3-5 start to the season. The defending champs have won four straight and five of their last six, though the Bengals are the only team with a winning record that they’ve beaten over that stretch.
The Patriots on the other hand are looking to bounce back after a disappointing loss to the Miami Dolphins. They could have clinched the AFC East and moved into the top spot in the AFC with a win, but squandered that opportunity. This week, they’re focused on getting the win and finally clinching a playoff spot.
There is plenty riding on the line for each team, so here are a few things to watch for:
Who Holds Up Brady?
The Patriots’ offensive line has not been very good this year, and it seems to get worse each week. Injuries have a lot to do with the struggles, but the team will not use that as an excuse when explaining why Tom Brady has been sacked 37 times so far this season — just four off his career high of 41 sacks in 2001.
Nate Solder suffered another concussion last week against the Dolphins, his second in as many weeks, and despite returning to practice on Thursday and Friday, it’s crazy to think he would actually play on Sunday. If he does suit up, chances are he won’t last the entire game.
That would force Logan Mankins to move from left guard to left tackle and protect Brady’s blind side, with undrafted rookie Josh Kline, who spent time on the New England practice squad earlier this season, to take over at left guard. That’s not the ideal line of protection you want in front of a franchise quarterback, especially against a team like the Ravens.
Brady was sacked just once last week in Miami, but felt the pressure for most of the second half and was knocked down on numerous occasions. Now, that make-shift offensive line will have to contain a mighty Ravens’ pass-rush that features Brady’s best friend Terrell Suggs (9 sacks this season) and his new sidekick Elvis Dumervil (9.5 sacks), who often line up side-by-side to create a nightmare for offensive lineman.
Brady knows he’s going to feel the pressure this weekend, but he’ll be focused on getting the football out of his hand, not who is — or more likely, who isn’t — blocking in front of him.
“We can’t dwell on the fact that someone may or may not be there. You just have to go with what you’ve got,” Brady said on Wednesday. “I have plenty of things I have to focus on. Whoever is out there, I have to trust that they’ll be able to do what they’re asked to do or else we wouldn’t be asking them to do it. It’s just kind of dealing with injuries like everybody else.”
The Ravens didn’t sack Brady in last year’s AFC Championship game, but they applied steady pressure and forced him to make quick decisions and throws. While there were no sacks in the box score for Baltimore, we saw this all too often on the Gillette Stadium turf that Sunday evening 11 months ago:
One more stat that will make you fear for Brady’s life on Sunday: According to Pro Football Focus, he leads the league with nine sacks that have come within 2.5 seconds or less of him snapping the ball. Nine times! Flacco and Miami’s Ryan Tannehill are second with four apiece.
Ray Running Wild
For whatever reason, the Ravens don’t like to let Ray Rice run loose. Granted, he’s in his sixth NFL season, which in running back years is 130, but he is still a weapon on the ground the Patriots will have to deal with come Sunday.
Rice has enjoyed success against the Patriots throughout his career, averaging 97.3 yards per game against them in three regular season games and 91.3 yards per game in three playoff games. His average is helped greatly by his 159-rushing yard game in the 2009 AFC Wild Card game, a 33-14 blowout win by the Ravens at Gillette, but he did run for 101 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots’ 31-30 Week 3 loss last season.
Joe Flacco’s knee bent in a way it shouldn’t have late last Monday night, but he’s good to go with just a mild MCL strain. With no Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly or Jerod Mayo lining up on the opposite side, it may be in Flacco’s best interest to try to get his running game going first, even though they rank 29th in the league in yards per game. That will just enhance the Ravens’ play-action attack, which they have employed heavily throughout the season.
With the Patriots struggling to stop the run, and Dont’a Hightower struggling in every facet of defensive football, Rice (or fellow Baltimore back Bernard Pierce) could be due for a big evening on Sunday.
Worried About A Kicker?!?
It’s true, there was plenty of chatter about Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker throughout the week.
And rightfully so. All 18 of the Ravens points in their Monday night win over the Detroit Lions came off of Tucker’s right foot, including a game-winning 61-yarder with 38 seconds to go.
Tucker hasn’t missed a kick since Week 2, hitting 32 straight, and is 35-of-37 for the season. He’s six-of-seven in attempts 50 yards or longer, so the Patriots defenders know they are going to have to be very careful with how many yards they give up. Once the Ravens pass the New England 35 (and potentially even the 45-yard line), that likely means three points on the board for Baltimore.
“It changes how you call your defense a little bit,” said corner Aqib Talib. “Usually you’d mark it at like the 35-yard line or the 37 or something like that. But I mean, an extra five yards with this guy, it’s crucial.”
“At the end of the game someone has to step up make a play and, you know, get a turnover – not allow him to get in field goal range,” said safety Devon McCourty. “If you leave the game in his hands there’s a good chance that he wins it or ties it or anything. It’s the same thing we feel about Stephen [Gostkowski] on offense.”
The Patriots may be able to contain the likes of Flacco and Rice, but Tucker adds a new and interesting element to the Baltimore offense.
While you’re gearing up for the 4:25 p.m. kickoff (thanks for the flex, NBC!), keep an eye on those 1 p.m. games as a few of them have a direct effect on the Patriots’ playoff picture.
The Dolphins are in Buffalo, and with a win and a Patriots loss, will be one game back of the Patriots for the AFC East with one week to go. They can also clinch a playoff spot for the first time since 2008 with a win and losses by both the Ravens and Bengals.
Speaking of those Bengals, who missed out on a golden opportunity to steal the #2 seed from the Patriots last week, they host the 4-9 Vikings. Cincy can clinch the AFC North with a W, and take some of the drama out of their Week 17 matchup with the Ravens. With a Bengals win and a Patriots loss, Cincinnati will take that #2 seed from the Patriots.
That is unless the Broncos also lose, but that is very unlikely seeing how they are playing the 2-12 Texans.
Of course, if the Dolphins lose, the Patriots clinch the AFC East without even taking the field against Baltimore.
But while the Patriots are getting ready for what will likely be another tough game against one of their biggest rivals, their competition gets a trio of cupcakes — making beating the Ravens even more important for New England.
Tune in to Patriots-Ravens Sunday afternoon on 98.5 The Sports Hub and WBZ-TV — the flagship stations of the New England Patriots.