Ravens, Boller to face ultimate test against Pats

FOXBORO, Mass. -- For quarterback Kyle Boller and the Baltimore Ravens, this football game is the ultimate proving ground in regards to reputation and playoff implications.<br><br> Against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots (9-1) Sunday at Gillette Stadium, Baltimore (7-3) and Boller will face off with fundamentally sound strategists who have won 24 of their last 25 games. That includes a streak of 21 consecutive wins snapped by the Pittsburgh Steelers a month ago.

The Ravens will have to unseat the Patriots without the services of All-Pro runner Jamal Lewis because of a sprained right ankle and Chester Taylor starts in his place. They'll try to match wits with mastermind coach Bill Belichick.

And Boller, a 23-year-old passer just beginning to hit his stride, will be competing against one of the NFL's most polished, composed quarterbacks: Tom Brady, two-time Super Bowl MVP.

"This is a huge game for me," Boller said. "I'm not going to go out there and try to be a better quarterback than Tom Brady. That's where you get into trouble.

"I'm just going to go out there and be myself and play like I've played for the last couple of weeks: play smart and not turn the ball over. If you do those things, you win football games."

For Brady, the epitome of quarterback cool in a manner unseen since Joe Montana, winning is simply what he and the Patriots do. Especially at home, where they have won their last 16 games, going 20-3 since Gillette Stadium opened.

Brady has earned two Super Bowl rings as an accurate, opportunistic quarterback who rarely makes mistakes. In 56 career starts, he has led the Patriots on 16 game-winning drives.

"To me, he is a microcosm of this team," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He's experienced, doesn't make a lot of mistakes. He knows his job. He knows his limitations. He knows what he has to do to win a game.

"He's very rarely going to do anything to beat them."

Brady's precision rises to another level in this stage, where he's celebrated as a celebrity quarterback who dates starlets yet has the blue-collar work ethic of a construction worker. At Gillette Stadium, Brady has thrown just four interceptions in his past 13 games.

He'll have a worthy foil to work against Sunday in his first encounter with the top scoring defense in the league (140 points) and top NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate Ed Reed.

Reed has intercepted six passes, scoring two touchdowns, demonstrating rare play-making abilities.

Between Reed and Brady, two of the most cerebral young athletes in the league will duel for the first time in a battle of wits and deception.

"I always look at it as a chess match," Reed said. "You have to be a very disciplined team when you're playing the Patriots. He can make every throw.

"He definitely is going to look you off and give you a pump here and there. He hasn't won two Super Bowls for nothing. He has all the respect from me."

Reed deserves a lot of respect, too.

In 42 games, the Pro Bowl safety has recorded 18 interceptions, broken up 43 passes and scored three touchdowns.

Reed has started to eclipse linebacker Ray Lewis, his mentor and the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, as the man who offensive coordinators must game plan for to avoid his game-changing ability.

"If you had asked me who I would take as a defensive MVP in the league from what I have seen, it would have to be Reed," Belichick said. "He is tremendous. I think Ed Reed probably brings everything you like in a football player.

"I think of all of his attributes, I would say that his most outstanding one is his intelligence. He anticipates very well. He knows what the offense is doing. Wherever the ball is, that is where he's going to show up."

Brady has completed 59.6 percent of his passes for 2,442 yards, 18 touchdowns and has thrown only eight interceptions. He has a lofty 93.6 quarterback rating.

He's also keenly aware of the danger that Reed represents.
"It's funny, you can pump him off and you might get him on a step and he will wheel back," Brady said. "He is everywhere. You always watch him on SportsCenter and say, 'How is he always around the ball?' He has incredible instincts and he flies around. He is awesome."

Brady ranks first in Patriots history in all-time completion percentage (61.5), passer rating (87.2) and is fourth in touchdowns (87) and yards (12,675).

"I would like to be like Tom Brady some day with two Super Bowl rings on my fingers," Boller said.

While Boller has a long way to go to match resumes with Brady other than having both dated actress Tara Reid and both hailing from California, the Ravens' quarterback does have a potentially strong advantage to utilize Sunday.

The Patriots' secondary is highly suspect because of injuries. They rank 20th in the NFL in pass defense, allowing 218.9 yards per game, surrendering 381 passing yards in Monday night's win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Earthwind Moreland and Randall Gary are incompetent replacements for injured starters Ty Law and Tyrone Poole. The Patriots are so desperate that they even line up receiver Troy Brown at cornerback.
"It's not going to be just checking the ball down," Boller said.

"There's going to be a fair amount of opportunities to take some downfield shots. Their secondary is kind of slim, down to their third and fourth string guys."

Defensively, New England has excelled with Belichick and coordinator Romeo Crennel's chief philosophy: force the quarterback to do something to hurt his team. They have the personnel to accomplish that task, an athletic, ideally-sized front seven.

Yet, Boller hasn't thrown an interception in his past 118 attempts. The string dates back to a meaningless Hail Mary pass at the end of the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles a month ago.

"This is the most veteran, disciplined, sound football team I think I've ever seen across the board: offense, defense, special teams," Billick said. "You're not going to trick these people, and that's been their formula for success.

"Where they challenge the quarterback and the entire team is that they're where they're supposed to be, when they're supposed to be there, doing what they're supposed to be doing. If you don't take that into account, they're going to make a play on you."

Baltimore, which has won five of its past six games as Boller has thrown five touchdowns with one interception over the last month, is comparing this game to its epic confrontations with the Tennessee Titans during its Super Bowl campaign.

In the 2000 season, the Ravens defeated the Titans in Nashville, Tenn., for the first opponent win at Adelphia Stadium during the regular season then knocked them off in the divisional playoffs at Adelphia again en route to winning the Super Bowl.

"There are a lot of parallels, we're the underdogs on the road and they have all the experience," offensive guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "The mentality is, 'It's us against the world."

The confidence gained during that period against the Titans ultimately paid huge dividends. There's a Vince Lombardi trophy encased in glass at the Ravens' new training complex as proof.
Can the Ravens, the only team to defeat the Steelers this year, duplicate that feat? Can Boller rise to the occasion? Or will the Ravens be exposed?

"We know how good they are," kicker Matt Stover said. "We're going to find out how good we really are."

Aaron Wilson writes for RavensInsider and the Carroll County Times.

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