While he's more than modest about his personal impact on the success of the Baltimore defense, Ngata will play a key role in determining whether or not his team will emerge from Foxborough.
Ngata anchors the middle of a defensive line that is allowing just 51 yards rushing per game during the team's 3-0 start in 2009. And if the Ravens can stifle a Patriots rushing attack that rolled for 168 yards last week during an impressive win against the Atlanta Falcons, Ngata and his teammates will be able to tee-off and put pressure on Brady from a variety of angles and positions--just like the Jets did during their Week 2 win over New England.
"With every quarterback, not only Tom, we're definitely going to try to get in his in face so he can't make his throws," Ngata said this week during a phone interview. "So just like the Jets, we're going to try to get in Tom's face a little bit, because once he gets hot with his receivers they become unstoppable. Hopefully it will work for us, too, and we can get the win."
Haloti Ngata is a force against the run and the pass.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
That said, Ngata doesn't take the challenge lightly. He knows that the Patriots offensive line will be working hard to keep him and his cohorts from being so disruptive.
"Their left side, (Logan) Mankins and (Matt) Light are pretty much bell cows, they can get off that ball and get a huge block," he said. "The offensive line has been together for years, and you know they're going to execute well. They don't really have to say much to each other, so you really can't get much information from them when you're lining up. You mainly have to look at what they are doing."
The last time the two teams met was during the New England's undefeated regular season, in 2007. While the Patriots notched a 27-24 win, the Ravens had the game wrapped up until a bizarre scenario played out in the final two minutes. Baltimore had stopped the Patriots on a fourth-and-1 with 1:48 left in the game, but the coaching staff had signaled for a timeout just before the snap. The Patriots fell short on converting for the second time despite the reprieve, but were penalized for a delay-of-game on the failed play--a penalty that couldn't be declined by Baltimore, giving New England a third attempt to make the first down on a fourth-and-6. Five plays after finally moving the chains, New England took the lead for good with 44 seconds left.
I asked Ngata if he and the other Ravens players drew anything from that experience that they're holding onto this week or passing on to current players who weren't on the team that season.
"No, it's in the past. You can't look back on it and think of it as a grudge match or a re-match game," he said. "We've got one of the top offenses in the league now, and defensively we're pretty much the same. So it's a different team and a different situation now.
"Back then, the Patriots were heading to the playoffs and we were pretty much just playing for pride. Now, both teams are are trying to keep the wins flowing and keep moving forward. So we'll just see what goes on this Sunday."
Point 2: Don't expect Mark Sanchez to go 4-0 as an NFL rookie quarterback against the Saints.
Just to put this in perspective, I was one of the few NFL writers to predict that the Jets would beat the Patriots in Week 2. But I see some different dynamics in this week's matchup against the Saints that should lead to the Jets dropping out of the ranks of the undefeated.
Drew Brees' quick reaction time will come in handy against an aggressive Jets defense.
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
The location of the game is among those factors. The Jets had the benefit of a raucous crowd to inspire them and distract New England. They won't have that advantage on Sunday.
But the Saints' ability to make the Jets a one-dimensional offense should be a more significant factor in this matchup. New Orleans has the defensive scheme and talent to limit the Jets' rushing attack, forcing them to place the burden for victory on the passing arm of their rookie quarterback, who is averaging a solid 202 passing yards per game. If the Saints are successful in doing that, watch out. Because Sanchez can't win a shootout against Drew Brees.
While Brees will certainly feel some pain and confusion while working against that formidable Jets defense, he's one of the best in the business at recognizing blitzes and making quick reads through his progressions. Unlike many NFL quarterbacks, Brees has an additional mental gear that allows him to do more in shorter bursts of time following the snap. That's been a key factor in the Saints' ability to move the chains 48.8 percent of the time on third down, and that's another important difference that gives the edge to the Saints. The Jets are converting 37.8 percent of their chances.
A New Orleans offense that averages 40 points per game is going up against a Jets defense that only allows 11 per game. That alone is worth the price of admission for this contest. I expect this to be a really hard-fought battle, but won't be surprised to see the Saints tally a ten-point victory by the end of the day.
Point 3: Over the past three seasons, the "other safety" for the Indianapolis Colts has been more reliable than Bob Sanders--and just as productive.
Many NFL fans outside of the AFC South would struggle to come up with the name of the Colts' starting safety who lines up next to Bob Sanders. But there are a couple of good reasons to remember his name.
It's Antoine Bethea--and he's in the final year of a four-year deal.
A sixth-round draft pick out of Howard University back in 2006, the quiet and soft-spoken player was named the team's starter right out of the gates during his rookie season. Since then, he's started in 46 of the team's 51 regular season contests, and in all six postseason games, including the team's Super Bowl win.
Antoine Bethea led the Colts in tackles in 2008 with 101 stops.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Meanwhile, Sanders has started just 25 regular season games during that span--roughly 54 percent as many as his partner--due to multiple injury problems, some of which have required offseason surgery.
While his durability and consistency is a huge plus in a starter's role, here's the fact that should earn Bethea a spot in your memory bank. When you look at the statistics posted by the 5-foot-11, 203-pound player on a per-game basis, his numbers are just as good as Sanders'--at a tiny fraction of the cost to the team.
The team's leading tackler in 2008 with 101 stops, Bethea has tallied regular season career totals of 277 tackles (6.02 per game), 18 passes defensed (0.39), nine interceptions (0.19) and two fumble recoveries. Meanwhile, Sanders has posted 162 tackles (6.48 per game), 9 passes defensed (0.36), four interceptions (0.16) and 3.5 sacks.
And the comparison holds when the team needs big-time performers to step up during postseason play. With both safeties logging six games, their numbers are very similar. Bethea has made 30 tackles, defensed five passes and intercepted three while Sanders has 35 tackles, four passes defensed, two interceptions and has forced two fumbles.
The biggest differences between the two talented players? Technique and money.
Bethea, who was also Howard University's leading tackler for three seasons, is a sure-tackler who does an extraordinary job of wrapping up runners' legs to make sure they hit the turf. After playing in nearly twice as many games as Sanders over the past three seasons, his salary cap hit is just under $558,000 this year.
Sanders usually goes for the shock-and-awe hits to the upper body--that undoubtedly have contributed to his injury problems over the years. His 2009 renegotiated deal that runs through 2012 is set up to hit the Colts cap for $6.1 million this year--more than ten times that of fellow starter.
Oh, and while the hard-working Bethea has started in every game so far this year, leads the team in tackles (21), has a pair of interceptions and a fumble recovery, the Colts are waiting for Sanders to get on the field for the first time this season.
So remember his name. It's Antoine Bethea.
Point 4: I learned something new this week from Dallas Cowboys kicker Nick Folk.
Nick Folk celebrates a game-winning field goal against the Buffalo Bills.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
As we watch kickers punch an extra point through the uprights, we've been conditioned to think of it as a chip-shot-- a routine and nearly effortless exercise that rarely fails. Compare that to watching kickers boot long field-goal attempts and you'd think that the execution of the kicks would be dramatically different.
Not so, according to the Cowboys' third-year kicker who earned a trip to the Pro Bowl during his rookie season back in 2007.
"You want to try to make every kick look like every kick that you have kicked in the past. You want to make every one look like an extra point," Folk told me this week.
Out of 59 NFL field-goal attempts to date, the 24-year-old player only recalls changing up his technique once. During a game against the Packers in his rookie year, he anticipated a heavy blitz against a kick of roughly 30 yards due to the game situation, so he got under the ball a bit more than usual to make sure he got more height on the effort.
"Other than that I won't change my stroke too much," Folk said. "If you get five extra points in a game, you better make sure you hit your extra points pretty well so that you're confident in going out there and kicking field goals."
This season, Folk's kicks mean more than ever. He's become a spokesperson for the Children's Tumor Foundation, a cause that's very personal to him and his family since he has a 14-year-old cousin with neurofibromatosis, a disease that causes tumors to grow along nerves throughout the body. Folk is donating money to the foundation for every extra point and field goal that he makes. You can learn more about his "Kick for a Cure" campaign and join him in supporting research for a cure at the foundation's website (ctf.org).
Sure, that's where all the media and fan focus is as the Packers travel to Minnesota, but it's not the key to the game.
Rodgers will throw for more yards than Favre. He'll post the better stats and Favre will make more mistakes at key moments. Despite the Viking quarterback's heroic touchdown toss and increased downfield throwing last week, he's not in the same category as Rodgers as a threat to be the primary playmaker throughout the 60 minutes of this game. Rodgers holds an edge in mobility and downfield accuracy at this stage in both passers' careers. He's thrown 11 passes for 20-plus yards versus just five by Favre during the first three weeks.
The Packers need to worry more about Adrian Peterson than Brett Favre.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
The key to this game is Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. He leads the league in rushing with 357 yards and is responsible for much of Favre's success to date this season. The Vikings quarterback has already been sacked nine times in three games, despite the horrific distraction that Peterson creates every time a play-action pass is called in from the sidelines. Can you imagine the pounding Favre would be taking if he was paired up with an average NFL running back? He's clearly not making his reads yet with the same certainty as he has in previous seasons. And he's surrendering to pressure like a house of cards in a gentle breeze rather than displaying the nifty footwork and cool head of his glory years.
Rodgers is having his own struggles with the pass rush, but it's not for lack of trying. He's been decked 12 times while trying to keep plays alive behind weakness on the right side of the offensive line. And when you look at the talent on the Minnesota defensive line, that's clearly cause for concern.
If Peterson stays hot and the Vikings defense can continue to enforce their league-best 22.2-percent third-down conversion rate, that combination could be deadly for Green Bay. But if the Packers can minimize Peterson's impact and truly turns this into a Favre versus Rodgers contest, I like their chances even as a road team.
Point 6: Eagles offensive tackle Winston Justice refuses to look back.
During his first four seasons in the league, Justice has been questioned on many fronts.
A highly-heralded blocker out of USC, he displayed first-round-level talent based on his strength and technique. But an off-the-field issue evidently created some doubts among teams until the Eagles selected him with their second-round pick.
Expectations ran high for what Justice would bring to the field in Philadelphia. He got his first start at the end of September in 2007 against the New York Giants while filling in for an injured Tra Thomas.
It was a memorable day, but one that no offensive lineman would want to remember. Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora set a franchise single-game record with six sacks while working against Justice. What made the spectacle more unbelievable was that Justice hadn't yielded a single sack during his senior year at USC.
As a result, some questioned if Justice would ever pull it together and succeed as a professional football player as he continued to work as a reserve during the balance of the 2007 season and all through 2008. But through it all, Justice never lost confidence in himself. And when an injury to Shawn Andrews opened the door to taking on a starter's role for the entire 2009 season, he was both grateful and ready for the challenge.
"The first three years was a humbling experience and it makes you value the time you have on the field," he told me this week. "I was blessed to play this game and I was blessed to be put in the position I was in the beginning of the season. I will just keep capitalizing on that opportunity."
Justice's first test was against the Carolina Panthers' Julius Peppers in Week 1. He passed with flying colors, and has stood his ground well in all three of the Eagles contests. So I asked him what's different this year from the last time he started a game nearly two years ago?
Winston Justice is focusing on his future in Philadelphia, not his past.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
"I think mentally is where I've made the most progress," the 6-foot-6, 320-pound lineman said. "That might sound a little cliché, but a lot of football is mental. A lot of guys have the physical attributes, but don't perform well out on the field mentally. I think I fell into that category.
"This offseason I really committed myself to Jesus, and its made a big difference in my life. Every play I'm trying to glorify God, and it really makes a big difference to me."
Justice also credits offensive line coach Juan Castillo for his success.
"He never lost hope in me, so I was blessed to be in that situation, having a coach like him who spends extra time with me before and after practice," Justice said. "He always texts me and calls me and makes sure I'm on top of my game. I'm not saying that I need that, but it's good to have someone that cares about you. In the NFL that's kind of hard to find."
And as he continues to develop his skill at the right tackle position for the Eagles, Justice says he is only focusing on the future.
"I still think I have a lot of things to work on, and I'm just trying to build on every performance and practice," he said. "I'm just trying to get better as a football player, so I don't really like to talk about games that happened a couple weeks ago or a month ago. Right now, I'm focused on Tampa Bay even though they are two weeks away."
Point 7: This week's game against the Bills will tell us a lot about the rest of Miami's season.
The Miami Dolphins entered the season with high hopes of contending for the AFC East title. But as they enter the month of October, those hopes could be dimming.
After a disappointing 0-3 start, the Dolphins tacked on an additional loss of major proportions when they placed starting quarterback Chad Pennington on injured reserve. And if they drop to 0-4, it'll be difficult for them to even contend for a wild card spot.
But all is not lost. Chad Henne is a confident, determined and strong-armed quarterback. He didn't look particularly sharp last week when forced into action following Pennington's injury, but with a full week of preparation with the first-team, he should fare better. You have to realize that while playing for Michigan, Henne started as a freshman, so stepping in as a reserve after not getting reps with the top talent group during game week is foreign to him. As he gets his timing down with his receivers, I believe he's fully capable of holding his own. And the added bonus is that he could add a sorely-missed long-ball threat to the offensive attack. With Pennington at the helm, Miami completed just three passes of 20 yards or more this year.
The problem is that it could take a few weeks for Henne to fully get his feet under him, and by then Miami could slip out of contention. So keep a close eye on how much progress Henne shows compared to last week--whether the Dolphins win or lose--and you'll have a better idea of how quickly the Dolphins may recover.
Click here for more coverage of your favorite NFL team.