PREDICTION: Patriots 20-17
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Ravens bring a far more run-centric offense back to Foxborough than the one that visited in October. The Patriots' middle of the pack run defense will face a stiff test from RBs Ray Rice and Willis McGahee, and Baltimore spent plenty of time reviewing the film of Texans rookie RB Arian Foster rumbling for 119 yards against New England last Sunday. If Baltimore keeps it a one-score game and can set up play-action, QB Joe Flacco will be far more efficient against the Patriots' complex scheme. WR Julian Edelman's stature is reminiscent of injured Wes Welker's, but it will be interesting to see how much the Patriots place on the rookie seventh-round pick in his first playoff game. RB Kevin Faulk and TE Ben Watson are likely to be utilized more in the passing game, but Edelman is a needed element underneath to help thwart Baltimore's blitz packages. Everything New England does will be in an effort to set up vertical shots to WR Randy Moss against the Ravens' thin secondary.
FAST FACTS: The Ravens were 1-6 against playoff teams during the regular season. ... The Patriots were 8-0 at home during the regular season. ... Patriots QB Tom Brady has a playoff career 8-0 record at home as a starter. No quarterback during the Super Bowl era has won his first nine postseason home games.
--QB Joe Flacco is dealing with a hip injury. He has not missed any practice time this week.
--FS Ed Reed (groin) will start after having a full practice Thursday. He was limited on Wednesday.
--RB Willis McGahee said he's not content being a backup but that he understands his role.
--LS Matt Katula (forearm) received a vote of confidence from special teams coach Jerry Rosburg even though he has struggled the past month.
--DT Haloti Ngata (ankle) will start after having a full practice Thursday. He was limited on Wednesday.
--G Marshal Yanda (knee) will start after having a full practice Thursday. He was limited on Wednesday.
--LB Tavares Gooden (groin) will play after having a full practice Thursday. He was limited on Wednesday. But it's likely that Dannell Ellerbe will continue to start in his place.
--OL Dan Connolly is the only player who didn't participate in Thursday's practice. He is still suffering from an ankle injury and will likely miss Sunday's playoff opener.
--OL Nick Kaczur appears to be fully recovered from his nagging shoulder injury since he has been on the practice field all week. He'll be the likely starter at right tackle on Sunday.
--QB Tom Brady has not missed any practice time this week, though most of that probably has to do with the fact he's putting in extra work with rookie wide receiver Julian Edelman, not because he's fully healed from his rib, finger and should injuries. Still, he'll be the starter Sunday.
--TE Benjamin Watson has also been on the practice field all week despite an injured knee. Watson could be a big part of the short-yardage passing game Sunday with Wes Welker out for the postseason.
--DL Jarvis Green is still suffering from a lingering knee injury, but has practiced all week and should be on the field Sunday in his normal role as a backup.
As the Ravens begin the playoffs at New England, Baltimore wide receiver Mark Clayton has a shot at redemption.
Three months ago, Clayton made one of the most critical drops of the Ravens' season when he let a fourth-down pass bounce off his chest at the New England 10-yard line. With only 28 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Clayton's mistake sealed the 27-21 loss for the Ravens.
Asked if he thinks about the drop, Clayton said, "Not at all -- until somebody says something about it. No, I'm just excited because No. 1, it's been a tough season and we're in the playoffs. So it's an opportunity for us to collectively gather everything that we've done -- good and bad -- and put that away and start fresh with a 0-0 record like everybody else."
Coach John Harbaugh didn't take the bait when asked whether Sunday's return represented a shot at redemption for Clayton.
"Hey, you always have second chances," Harbaugh said. "If it were perfect the first time around, it's never that way. There are always things you can improve. All of our guys feel that way about every game."
Inside the locker room after the game, Clayton accepted blame for the loss. This week, he still holds himself accountable.
"For me, that's the play that lost us the game," he said. "So no, that doesn't bother me. That's cool."
Clayton said he committed the fundamental sin of not trying to catch the football with his hands, instead guiding the ball to his chest.
"Yeah, I was super shocked," he said. "For a time, (I was in) just disbelief; 'That didn't really just happen, did it?' But it did."
"Just being around Mark this year, I know that he's a guy who -- as soon as he had that drop up there -- forgot about it on the plane ride back and was already concentrating on the next week," Washington said. "That's the type of player he is. He prepares really well for the game, studies players. Everybody drops the ball, and that's just the position that we're in. Some are critical situations, and some are just part of the game. He's definitely looked past that, and he's battled through a lot this year and he's made a lot of plays for us."
Clayton ranks fourth on the team in catches (34) and yards (480), but he has caught more than one pass just once in his past seven games. Still, if the situation were to repeat itself with Flacco looking for a receiver on fourth down during a two-minute drill, Clayton hopes that the quarterback would look to him.
"I always say that I want to be the guy," he said. "If we need a play in the game, throw it to me. That's my mind-set, that's my mentality. It's just the next game, it's a playoff game, it's a big game for us, and we want to win it."
You'd expect Tom Brady to play the role of mentor to the Patriots' younger players since he's been involved in so many postseason games himself, yet his lips have been surprisingly sealed this week.
"No one has asked me at this point," Brady said.
However, should one of the rookies approach the veteran quarterback asking about the difference between the regular season and the playoffs, Brady will undoubtedly share his knowledge, which, as we all know, comes from a vast amount of experience.
"You're playing the best teams, so I think the biggest difference is there's less of a margin for error," said the two-time Super Bowl MVP. "I think you go into these games and you're playing teams that are the best in the league and have won the most games, so typically they are the ones that make the fewest mistakes and the ones where the yards are hardest to come by.
"So our execution has to be better. You're really not going to be given too many plays, so I think that's ... In the experience that I've had, you realize have to play a really good game of football to win. You can't go out there and play sub-par and expect to advance, so that's really what we're focused on: playing a great game, having a really good week of practice."
So far, so good. The Patriots have had a productive, healthy week, though the loss of wide receiver Wes Welker in last week's season-finale is still hanging over their heads as they prepare for Sunday's playoff opener against the improved Baltimore Ravens.
One player Brady has worked closely with this week is rookie receiver Julian Edelman, who will try to pick up the slack Sunday in Welker's absence.
"He's been working hard all year and he puts a lot of pressure on himself," Brady said of Edelman. "It's pretty remarkable what he's done as a former quarterback, which I don't know how he was a former quarterback because he can't throw at all. He tries to tell me, 'Yeah, I threw for 2,000 yards.' I'm like, 'Man, you can't hit that wall over there.' And he somehow was playing. I'm glad he plays receiver and not quarterback anymore, for his sake and our sake."
Welker's injury occurring last week might have been a blessing in disguise because at least the team has had a full week to prepare for his inevitable absence on Sunday afternoon. Had the injury occurred during a playoff game, the team might not have had the chance to recover from both a physical and mental standpoint.
"This week you have a full week of practice to prepare for without (Welker), but then of course injuries happen throughout the course of this game, so there will be adjustments that happen to take place," Brady said. "Those are the things that you always prepare for throughout the week. If this guy goes down, this is what we've got to do. We were going to be a three-wide receiver team.
"Now, it's got to be two wide receivers. You always have backup plans because it could happen in the first play. It could happen in the first quarter. It could happen in the fourth quarter. It's just one of those games."
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