By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots and Ravens really don’t like each other all that much. But darn it, do they respect one another.
At least for the most part they do. Sure, Terrell Suggs won’t say Tom Brady’s name. And when the two teams take the field, that respect is nowhere to be found, stashed away somewhere until the outcome of the game has been decided. There have even been a few times where that respect stays hidden until cooler heads can prevail at a later date.
But that is simply the product of two teams who know how to play the game squaring off against each other, fighting tooth and nail for victory over the other. Their rivalry has been great to watch over the last decade, providing plenty of highlights, two great coaches trying to outfox one another, and most importantly, entertaining football games that often come down to the end.
Monday night’s game should be no different when the 10-2 Patriots host the 7-5 Ravens. The Patriots are looking to assert themselves as the top team in the AFC. The Ravens are looking to do the same, winners of four of their last five. Here’s what we’ll be watching for, along with the rest of the football world, when the two square off on National TV:
The Belichick-Harbaugh Chess Match
Usually, Bill Belichick has an advantage over the opposing head coach by simply waking up in the morning. Look no further than last Sunday against Jeff Fisher, who couldn’t even find his challenge flag, showing off everything he learned at Clown College over the years.
That won’t be the case Monday night when John Harbaugh lines up across the field and the two engage in an epic chess match. A chess match that features a lot of yelling and likely a cuss word or 100.
Granted, Harbaugh and his birds were caught off guard and completely flabbergasted and flustered by Bill’s trickeration the last time these two teams met. Belichick’s ineligible receiver sets in the 2014 AFC Divisional Game not only caused chaos for the Ravens defense on the field, but a whole lot of crying afterwards. So much so that the NFL went in and amended the rules that offseason.
They must not have bothered Harbaugh too much, since he used them the very next season.
Now buddies Bill and John will go tit-for-tat for the ninth time in their decade-long history, and first since that unbelievable night two years ago. Their lengthy resume against each other is why Belichick sees the Ravens as a divisional opponent. He owns a 3-1 edge over the Ravens in the regular season, while they’ve split their four meetings in the playoffs.
They may not like each other too much when they’re across from each other on the field, but they sure do have a lot of respect for each other off of it.
“We’re probably not socializing that much, but I don’t know how many coaches really do,” Harbaugh said of Belichick earlier this week. “We’re all so busy. I’ll see him or any coach at the combine or at the owners meetings, and we have a chance to talk. It’s always good. I have a ton of respect for him. I really like him as a person.”
Belichick was one of the reasons Harbaugh was hired back in 2008, so that certainly plays a role in that mutual respect. But that respect will take a backseat come kickoff. The epic battle of who can out-wit whom, or who can force the other to over-think themselves, will be on display. The mind games will be aplenty.
Something unorthodox will happen. A double pass, or maybe some weird running back sets by the Patriots. Maybe we’ll see some more wacky (but legal) ineligible formations. How about another team-wide holding excursion from the Ravens? We’ll see something; an ace up either of the coach’s sleeves, so to speak.
We’ll see who plays it first, and which coach can say “check mate” in the end (with a few other words added, of course).
Monday Night Brady
Despite the fact that Thursday Night Football has caused many to be exhausted with football by the time Monday night rolls around, Tom Brady still thinks that playing in the national spotlight on a Monday evening is something special.
And you really can’t fault him, because he’s had some incredible games on the first night of the week. There was his 517-yard, four touchdown game against the Miami Dolphins to kick off the 2011 season. A year later, he made the Houston Texans look silly with another four touchdown game, though the Texans looked silly enough when they walked into Gillette Stadium with some fancy letterman jackets. In all, Brady has four different games in which he’s thrown a quartet of touchdowns, and he’s thrown three or more touchdowns in nine of his Monday night games. His 44 touchdowns on Monday Night Football are good for fourth all-time in NFL history, and he has a chance to pass Drew Brees (46) this week. After Brees, Brady trails just Brett Favre (69) and Dan Marino (74).
Brady brings a 14-6 record on Monday night football into his showdown with the Ravens, but he might have a tough time adding to those stats of his.
That Baltimore Defense
It’s good. Real good. And without Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, it’s going to be a huge test for Brady and the Patriots offense.
Baltimore ranks first in the NFL when it comes to yards allowed (296.1 yards per game), and are tied with the Patriots for second in points allowed (17.3 points per game). While a chilly night game is a perfect setting for LeGarrette Blount to just put his head down and bowl over anyone standing in his way, but the Ravens are the best in the league at stopping that, holding opponents to just 73.8 rushing yards — the best in the NFL.
So Brady can just pick them apart with all those short cross routes, right? Well, the Baltimore pass defense is pretty good too with guys like Jimmy Smith, Ladarius Webb and Eric Weddle knocking down or picking off passes. The Ravens have 14 picks on the season (second in the NFL), setting up a great matchup against Brady.
It’ll be important for the offensive line to give Brady as much time as possible to pick apart the Ravens over the middle of the field, one of their few vulnerabilities on that side of the ball. If they can’t, Brady will have plenty of run-ins with his old friend Suggs, who leads the Ravens defense with eight sacks on the season.
It’s not the all-world defense the Ravens were trotting out in the early 2000s, but it’s a darn good unit that is going to give Brady fits.
Who’s Taking Back Punts For The Patriots?
Rookie Cyrus Jones is a mess back there. Danny Amendola is hurt, in part because rookie Cyrus Jones is a mess back there. So who will be fielding punts for the Patriots come Monday night, and for that matter, the rest of the regular season?
Julien Edelman is the likeliest of candidates, but do the Patriots really want their top receiver to add punt return duties to his weekly agenda? With Gronk out it’s going to be key for the Patriots for Edelman to be as healthy as possible when the playoffs roll around. So maybe having him back there on special teams isn’t the best idea, but he’s also the best option they have.
Edelman isn’t the only option, but maybe the only effective option. D.J. Foster is one of those quick guys, but had exactly one return in college, and it came on a kickoff. Newly signed Griff Whalen has some experience fielding punts, but he’s also fresh off the street and didn’t exactly light the world on fire when he did so for the Indianapolis Colts, averaging 8.6 yards on his 46 career punt returns.
It’ll likely be Edelman, but we’ll see if Belichick wants to give someone else a try to preserve Brady’s top target as best they can. It’s a dicey situation to toss someone new out there at this point in the season, but it’s a reality the Pats are living without Amendola.
Bonus: Two Tickets To The Gun Show
Enjoy the six-hour runtime this game will carry thanks to Ed Hochuli’s overly descriptive explanations. At least we’ll know which butt cheek was down as a player went out of bounds.