Game Preview: Patriots vs Ravens

Baltimore Ravens (13-4) at New England Patriots (14-3). News, notes, keys to the game, links and more.

Baltimore Ravens (13-4) at New England Patriots (14-3)

KICKOFF: Sunday, 3 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 1/22/12
VENUE: Gillette Stadium
SURFACE: Field Turf
LOCATION: Foxboro, Mass  (map)
WEATHER: current forecast (30', 8 mph wind, 20% chance of snow)

TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms

PREDICTION: Ravens 30-27

KEYS TO THE GAME: When Baltimore rolled the Patriots, 33-14, in the 2009 postseason, it was a sizzling Ray Rice performance that carried the day. Rice had 22 carries for 159 yards and two touchdowns, including an 83-yard score, and the Ravens attempted only 10 passes. Baltimore must break its puzzling habit of going away from Rice in road games this season; he's averaging only 14.5 carries with 10 or fewer carries four times. That can't happen on this stage. Rice accounted for 38 percent of the team's offensive output in 2011 and he's easily the Ravens' premier playmaker. The Patriots aren't a threat to sack QB Joe Flacco five times as the Texans did last week. Their front seven is not as active or athletic and there are holes throughout the secondary, exposed by far lesser quarterbacks than Flacco in recent weeks. Flacco went 7-0 against teams in the 2011 playoffs by avoiding mistakes -- two interceptions in those games -- but he was nervy behind a flustered offensive line last week and has just six touchdowns and seven interceptions in eight career playoff games. Flacco has the height and arm strength to get the ball out even in a muddled pocket. WR Anquan Boldin, the team's best route-runner, works the middle of the field fearlessly. The Patriots are likely to let Flacco have the seven- to 10-yard intermediate throws to instead challenge speed threats Torrey Smith and Lee Evans. New England allowed 10 300-yard games and was 31st in the NFL in passing defense during the regular season, but the numbers are slightly overstated in that they patiently wait for miscues and clamp down in the red zone. They'll attack Flacco's looseness with the ball -- he has 10 total fumbles, including one last week -- and attempt to change the game with takeaways.

The Patriots are well-equipped to use empty sets early and often as elixir for the Ravens' supercharged pass rush. Tom Brady has the skilled tight ends who can align at wide receiver, flex into the slot or motion into the backfield to slow the 3-4 scheme. Brady had six touchdown passes last week and wasn't sacked. The Ravens brought pressure through the inside gaps in the '09 win, and have been successful tripping up Brady's timing with receivers. Brady's 55.9 completion percentage against the Ravens in five career games is his lowest against any NFL team. He can take advantage of SS Bernard Pollard's aggressiveness against TE Rob Gronkowski and slide WR Wes Welker, who had 122 catches in the regular season, around the formation to find the best matchup. FS Ed Reed, typically an equalizer in coverage because of his range, closing speed and sure hands, might be limited by a sore ankle. Brady had a 40-yard completion in 10 of the last 13 games, including last week, and will pepper throws to the sideline to gauge Reed's health. But if Reed is right, the Ravens have a chance to rattle Brady's cage as they did in '09, when he was picked three times and sacked three times, had a 49.1 passer rating and a long completion of 24 yards The Patriots are a sum of parts running game. In the divisional round win over Denver, TE Aaron Hernandez had a team-high 61 yards on five carries, including a 43-yard run. Baltimore gave up 92.6 rushing yards per game in 2011, holding eight of its opponents to less than 95 rushing yards.

The Patriots punted as many as five times in only two of their 17 games. By contrast, the Ravens punted nine times last week, the ninth time this season they had five or more punts. New England's Zoltan Mesko had a 46.5-yard average to match Sam Koch of the Ravens. Baltimore's return game -- Tom Zbikowski on kickoffs, Lardarius Webb on punts -- isn't a major threat since losing David Reed (29.7 yards per kickoff return) to a season-ending knee injury Dec. 24. The Patriots aren't a major threat to break a long return. Julian Edelman had a 72-yard runback for score but otherwise averaged 8.3 yards on 27 punt returns. Baltimore was 31st in kickoff return average at 29.2 yards per return, but the Ravens did come up with a fumble recovery on a punt return last week. After an All-Pro worthy season in 2010, Ravens PK Billy Cundiff made just over 75 percent of his field goals and was hampered late in the season by a calf injury. Stephen Gostkowski was 10-of-13 on field goals of 40-plus yards and 28-of-33 overall for New England.

FAST FACTS: Rice led the NFL with 452 yards on third down this season. ... The Ravens were third in the NFL in receiving yards by opposing tight ends. ... Tom Brady has completed 20 of 24 passes to TE Rob Gronkowski thrown into the end zone.

   SERIES HISTORY: 8th overall meeting between the two teams. The series began in 1996 when the Cleveland Browns relocated to Baltimore. The Ravens and Patriots have played six times in the regular season with New England winning all six games. Baltimore, however, won the lone postseason meeting between the two teams, 33-14, in the 2009 wild-card playoffs at Gillette Stadium.


INSIDE THE CAMPS

Patriots

   The Patriots arguably pieced together their best defensive effort of the season against the Broncos in the divisional playoffs.
   But Pro Bowl lineman Vince Wilfork is cautiously optimistic heading into Sunday's conference title game that more good things are coming from a defense that has been plenty bad in stretches this season.
   He also knows the Patriots haven't solved all their problems, not to mention the fact the Baltimore Ravens present a new set of challenges.
   "I think last week won't have anything to do with this week to be honest with you," Wilfork said. "Our goal is to get better. We have to play better. We have to make more plays because each game you play it gets tougher and tougher, especially when you're dealing with a ball club we're going to face in the Ravens.
   "They're a stingy team," he continued. "Defensively, they're probably one of the best teams. Offensively, they have probably one of the best running backs in the game -- wide receivers, (Anquan) Boldin and everyone. It's definitely a challenge for us, but I think this defense is capable."
   The confidence level should be at an all-time high. The Patriots can take solace in knowing they managed a 13-3 regular-season record despite finishing near the bottom of the league in most defensive categories. Now they're one win away from the Super Bowl.
   "I have faith that we're going to get to work and we're going to put everything we have in it," Wilfork said. "Right now, it's a one game season. The only thing we're focused on is the AFC Championship -- this game against the Ravens. The team that prepares well, that's the team that is going to win this ball game."
   Wilfork is arguably the key to the entire game plan. The Patriots need to shut down Ray Rice, who destroyed them two years ago in Foxboro in the wild-card playoffs, and Wilfork's ability to team with fellow lineman Kyle Love and hold down the fort, so to speak, will determine whether or not the Patriots can get back to the Super Bowl for the first time in four years.
   "When you have a running back like that, you can do anything with him," Wilfork said. "I think the Ravens do a good job of using him. That's first on our list; we have to slow him down if we want to be successful as a defense."

Ravens
   The Baltimore Ravens can't be blamed for walking out of the defensive meeting rooms with bleary eyes or dreaming at night of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez after watching film of the New England Patriots' tight ends. But the scrutiny is well-deserved.
   Gronkowski set a new standard for tight ends when he compiled a NFL-record 1,327 yards, surpassing the previous mark of 1,290 established by the San Diego Chargers' Kellen Winslow in 1980. Gronkowski set another league mark when he hauled in 17 touchdown catches, shattering the record of 13 shared by the Chargers' Antonio Gates (2004) and the San Francisco 49ers' Vernon Davis (2009).
   Hernandez may not have the records like his teammate does, but he enjoyed his own share of success, finishing the regular season with 910 yards and seven touchdowns. Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 169 receptions -- the most by a pair of tight ends in the same season in NFL history.
   Those results -- as well as Gronkowski's 10-catch, 145-yard, three-touchdown display in New England's 45-10 thrashing of the Denver Broncos in last weekend's AFC Divisional playoff round -- have caught the attention of Baltimore's defensive players.
   "There's probably not a better duo in the league," outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "Hernandez, they use him everywhere. They use him as a running back. He runs a lot of vertical routes, runs a lot of underneath routes. And then Gronkowski, he's just a big, physical body who can run. You think he's 6-6, 265 (pounds) or whatever he is, but you watch him on film and he's running away from people. So it's a huge challenge for us. But you've just got to match up and play."
   At 6-3 and 260 pounds, Johnson has the strength to match up with Gronkowski and the 6-1, 245-pound Hernandez. The defense could also elect to shadow them with either inside linebackers Jameel McClain (6-1, 245 pounds) or Brendon Ayanbadejo (6-1, 225 pounds).
   If Baltimore prefers to match those tight ends stride-for-stride, strong safety Bernard Pollard may be the best candidate.
   But the 6-1, 224-pound Pollard said the defense's best strategy may lie in being physical with the duo.
   "If you look at them, sometimes they run downfield by themselves. We can't have that happen," Pollard said. "We have to have guys on them at all times. We've got to run around, we've got to hit, we've got to tackle. I'm a strong believer that if you hit, tackle, and hit people hard, people don't like that. A lot of people don't like that. Not to say that they're soft or anything else. I'm just saying that a lot of offensive people don't like being hit."
   The Ravens have an enviable track record of success against opposing tight ends in 2011. The defense surrendered the second-fewest yards to tight ends (665).

PERSONNEL NEWS

Patriots
   --QB Tom Brady practiced Thursday after sitting out Wednesday with a left shoulder injury. Brady has battled the injury throughout the season and will be in the lineup Sunday.
   --OT Nate Solder has been added to the injury report with a concussion. Solder is a key player given his ability to play both tackle positions.
   --OT Sebastian Vollmer is still limited in practice due to back and foot injuries. He sat out last week's playoff opener, but might be forced back into the lineup if Nate Solder is unavailable.
   --WR Deion Branch has been limited in practice due to a knee injury, but figures to be in the lineup Sunday. He'll be a key part of the game plan since the best way to beat Baltimore's defense might be utilizing outside receivers.

Ravens
   --FS Ed Reed was limited in practice on Thursday, marking the second straight day he took part on a limited basis. Reed, who is dealing with an injured left ankle, is expected to make his customary start on Sunday against the New England Patriots.
   --QB Joe Flacco needs just one playoff win to move into a tie for the most post-season victories by a quarterback in his first four seasons in the NFL. Flacco, who is 5-3 in the playoffs, trails the Patriots' Tom Brady, who accrued six postseason wins in his first four years.
   --RB Ray Rice is one touchdown shy of setting a new franchise playoff record. Rice, who has four combined touchdowns in the postseason, is tied with running backs Willis McGahee and Jamal Lewis.
   --LB Ray Lewis has caused six fumbles in 16 career playoff contests. Lewis is tied with former Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Neil Smith for the most career forced fumbles in NFL postseason history.
   --LB Terrell Suggs has registered 10 sacks in the playoffs, which is a franchise high. The 10 sacks and subsequent 69 yards lost are a NFL-best since 2008.
   --TE Ed Dickson made 21 of his 54 catches on third down in the regular season. Dickson, who tied for second in the NFL in that department by a tight end, turned 15 of those receptions into first downs.

MORE:

Ravens: News -- Forums
Patriots:  News -- Forums
Patriots Daily Newswire
These Patriots they are a-changin'
Patriots Have New Attitude In Postseason
Patriots TEs Give Team Unique Advantage
Patriots Schedule Easy Path To Championship?
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