Ravens Have Had It Easy
By John MacKenna, Patriots Insider
The Ravens get a lot of hype, but they are more pretenders than contenders, and they don't stand much of a chance when they visit the Patriots this Sunday.
While the Patriots have been winning a succession of truly difficult games en route to their 9-1 record, the Ravens have been beating up on soft opposition. Now the Ravens come to Gillette Stadium without workhorse running back Jamal Lewis, and they will likely leave with their playoff hopes hanging by a thread.
The Ravens' defense has compiled its NFL-leading 14.0 points-against average against some of the NFL's least effective offenses. Since defeating Pittsburgh on Sept. 19, the Ravens have beaten only one team that averages more than 18.3 points a game. In that time they have played two high-octane offenses, the Eagles and the Chiefs, and they lost both games.
They did eke out a 20-17 OT win against the Jets, who score 21.2 points a game, but the Jets were missing QB Chad Pennington, and they were three yards away from the winning touchdown at the end of regulation.
The Patriots, meanwhile, have faced six of the 12 highest-scoring offense in the NFL and won five of those games.
Ravens QB Kyle Boller has been playing well of late, throwing only one interception in the last five games. But with Lewis out, Boller has to do more than just take good care of the ball. The Ravens have to take to the air to score against the Patriots, and that's not their style: They are last in the NFL with an average of only 154.6 passing yards per game.
The Patriots have been winning without starting cornerbacks Ty law and Tyrone Poole, and the picture isn't getting any better this week. Poole is listed as doubtful, and CBs Asante Samuel and Randall Gay both showed up on the injury report this week as questionable. Samuel appeared to be in a lot of pain by the end of the Kansas City game.
It is hard to imagine the Ravens running the ball with any success on New England. Replacement RB Chester Taylor is undersized at 5'11", 213, and he has done little with his opportunities so far. When he relieved Lewis last week against an unraveling Dallas Cowboys defense, he gained only 33 yards on 15 carries.
The Patriots run defense is getting stingier by the week. In the three games since the Halloween debacle in Pittsburgh, the Patriots have held opponents to 65 rushing yards on average. During that stretch, DT Ty Warren has satisfied all his doubters. Against Kansas City, Warren had seven tackles (all solo) and two sacks. DT Keith Traylor also has been making the most of his opportunities.
Baltimore's best hope is to keep the game close and win with big plays on defense and special teams. As stingy as the Ravens are on defense, though, they will be stretched thin by the Patriots' superbly balanced attack.
The Ravens have to guard the lanes at the line of scrimmage to keep RB Corey Dillon from busting loose. That means going with man-to-man coverage in the backfield, and that's asking for trouble. With Dillon at his side in the backfield, QB Tom Brady has made excellent use of play action to create the tiny openings he needs to find the open man.
Against the run, the Ravens simply are not as tough as their reputation would suggest. They faced the Jets with unthreatening backup QB Quincy Carter at the helm, and they let Curtis Martin loose for 119 yards on 28 carries. Dillon should be able to match that output.
Open Patriots receivers will be easier to find now that Deion Branch is back in from a knee injury. Branch returned at full strength Monday night in Kansas City, catching six balls for 105 yards and a touchdown.
During Branch's seven-game absence, third-year wideout David Given emerged as one of the AFC's top wideouts. Givens has 43 catches for 713 yards-an average of 16.6 yards per catch. That duo will be too much for the Ravens to handle, especially if Pro Bowl CB Chris McAlister is not at full strength. It should also be noted that New England is a terrible matchup for the Ravens other cornerback, Gary Baxter. At 6'2", 215, Baxter is a handful for the league's big, strong wideouts. Against the Patriots speedsters, though, he could be an image in the rearview mirror. CB Deion Sanders is expected to return from a toe injury.
The Ravens have to hope they can pick off Brady, but Brady is a master of game management, and he undoubtedly will go into this game with ball possession as his top priority. He will not lose sight of Ravens safety Ed Reed, who leads the NFL with six interceptions and has a gaudy 18picks in 42 career games.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has Reed on his mind. "If you were to ask me who I would pick as the Defensive MVP of the league, from what I've seen, and I've seen everybody, it would have to be Reed," said Belichick. "He's tremendous."
One thing the Ravens surely will do is get after Brady. They have 30 sacks on the season, led by Terrell Suggs with 8.5. Look for the Patriots to go retro with a lot of short sideline passes to gain yardage in small chunks and open the middle for Dillon.
This figures to be a kicker's game, and both teams excel in that department. Ravens kicker Matt Stover is 17 for 18 in field goal attempts and is yet to miss inside 50 yards. Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri is back in Pro Bowl form himself, leading all NFL kickers with 25 field goals, and he has missed only one.
After an easy schedule in the first half, the Ravens need to get used to tough road games. They visit Indianapolis in Week 15 and Pittsburgh in Week 16. They must win at least one of these three games to have a realistic shot a wild-card berth.
Dillon's per-game average of 110.9 rushing yards is 3rd best in the NFL.
Patriots punter Josh Miller is second in the NFL with an average of 45.3 yards.
Ravens punt returner B.J. Sams is 8th in the NFL with a 10.9-yard average.
Ravens LB Ray Lewis is third in the NFL with 97 tackles. Patriots safety
Rodney Harrison is tied for fifth with 85.
John is a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: oldnslow. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna"
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