The Patriots take their perfect 11-0 record on the road this week to battle the struggling Baltimore Ravens on Monday night. The Ravens have lost five games in a row and need a win desperately to stay alive in the AFC playoff picture.
Not much has gone right for the Ravens this season, starting immediately in the season opener when quarterback Steve McNair began to show the wear and tear of 13 years of poundings in a disappointing loss at Cincinnati. McNair personally turned the ball over four times in that game, and Baltimore lost a chance to tie in the waning seconds behind backup Kyle Boller when coach Brian Billick inexplicably chose to throw rather than run at the goal line against the lowly Bengals defense. Boller's pass went off Todd Heap's hands before being intercepted to seal the Ravens fate. It would be the first chance for second-guessers to question Billick's play-calling. It would not be the last.
Everyone from media to fans to the Ravens players themselves have lined up wondering what the team's offensive plan was, and Billick has been under fire constantly over the past several weeks. The most vocal of those critics has been longtime Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis.
The Ravens' spiritual leader, even as his game has declined a bit, has never been afraid to make his feelings known and he's openly questioned Billick's offensive game plans in the midst of a mind-numbing five-game losing streak that's seen the Ravens lose in a variety of ways. The current malaise has left Baltimore out of playoff contention in the AFC after a 4-2 start, and even though Lewis may not have gone about it in the most team-oriented manner, the bombastic linebacker is right about the reason for the demise.
The Ravens offense, even back in the Super Bowl days, was never much to look at. But with McNair breaking down more regularly, and playing poorly when he has been in the lineup, things have bottomed out. As a result, Billick appears to be turning things over to Boller full time. But there has been very little difference in terms of production between the two. McNair compiled a 73.9 passer rating in 205 attempts before losing his job. He threw just two touchdown passes in those games. Boller's rating is virtually the same (74.7) and he had just five TDs in virtually the same amount of attempts (208).
Lewis' complaints weren't necessarily related to quarterback play but rather Billick's approach. Two weeks ago in their wild overtime home loss to Cleveland, the Ravens overcame another listless first half by exploding for 23 points after the break. That led to a lot of "opening up the offense" talk in Baltimore, but did little to solve the team's losing ways.
Whether it's Boller or McNair at the controls, the Ravens have been slowed by the declining play of a usually dominant offensive line. Left tackle Jonathan Ogden is one of the game's best but a painful toe injury limited him greatly early in the season and he's only recently gotten back near full strength. The spotty play up front has led to plenty of pressure on the quarterback and inconsistent running lanes for the plodding Willis McGahee. The former Bill is enjoying a solid year statistically with another 1,000-yard season a certainty, but he lacks the explosiveness to make him much of a big-play threat.
Wide receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton are solid, but also don't represent home-run threats. The conservative nature of the offense has made Baltimore one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league with just 182 points through 11 games -- a far cry from the historic pace the Patriots are currently on.
And therein lies the biggest problem for the Ravens coming into this Monday night affair. Opponents of the Patriots realize they must be prepared to put points on the board, regardless of how strong their defense is. New England has proven it can score against anyone, and Baltimore will be hard-pressed to keep pace with its pedestrian attack. Therefore, the onus will fall almost squarely on the shoulder of Lewis and the defense.
Although not quite at the level of the past, the Ravens can still pose problems on that side of the ball. Lewis and Bart Scott man the inside linebacker spots, and they're well protected behind a pair of mammoth defensive tackles in Haloti Ngata and the unheralded Kelly Gregg. Pass-rush specialist Terrell Suggs is tough coming off the edge from one of the outside linebacker spots, and he'll give Matt Light another sturdy test in a season where the Pats veteran left tackle has passed virtually all of them. And the incomparable Ed Reed still patrols the back line of defense from his safety spot.
Lewis and the Ravens are still a proud bunch despite their noticeable decline. They'll muster up every bit of that pride playing at home under the lights and in front of a national television audience. But the Patriots are more than used to those conditions. They've taken everyone's best shot and this will mark their third straight prime-time appearance. If someone is going to knock them off, it will take a pretty determined, mistake-free effort and it doesn't look like the sinking Baltimore Ravens have what it takes to make that happen.