2. Will Steve McNair have a ton of time to throw? It certainly looks that way since the Falcons won't have either of their starting defensive ends, John Abraham and Patrick Kerney, due to injuries. The Ravens' offensive line has only allowed two sacks in the past three games and should be able to handle the likes of Paul Carrington, Josh Mallard and Chauncey Davis off the edge.
3. Will receivers Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams have a field day? The Falcons' secondary has played horrendously with the exception of cornerback DeAngelo Hall (four interceptions), and will be without starting right cornerback Jason Webster (groin) and has lost nickel back Kevin Mathis for the season. Against the Titans, the Ravens' receiving trio combined for 19 receptions for 264 yards and two touchdowns. Plus, the Ravens have one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the league in Todd Heap. The Falcons are likely to have major issues guarding against the pass. Safeties Lawyer Milloy and Chris Crocker are limited athletically in terms of range in the deep zones.
4. How will the Ravens deal with tight end Alge Crumpler? Crumpler is Vick's primary target and is extremely productive in the red zone. He leads the Falcons in receptions with 34 for 467 yards and six touchdowns. A highly versatile player, Crumpler gets a nice release off the line of scrimmage in most situations and is faster than he looks. Expect safety Ed Reed to draw this critical assignment.
5. Which return specialist will create the best field position for his team? Falcons return man Allen Rossum is currently sixth in the league in kickoff returns with an average of 25.9 and 20th in the league on punt returns with a 8.3 average. Ravens return specialist B.J. Sams hasn't made much noise lately, but still ranks seventh in the NFL on kickoff returns with an average of 25.4 and a long return of 72 yards. The Ravens' kick coverage units must do a solid job against Rossum.
WHO HAS THE EDGE?
Total (21) Rushing (25) Passing (15)
Steve McNair is thrilled with the plays Brian Billick is calling, and is in a much better rhythm now as a passer. He's taking less chances, but delivers throws with more authority. He still makes a few bad choices per game that could prove costly.
It's becoming increasingly clear that Jamal Lewis isn't on the verge of snapping out of his season-long slump. Perhaps that 2,066-yard season, ankle surgery and federal prison stint have just taken too high a toll. Musa Smith is ready to play after his neck injury last week.
They are coming off perhaps their best combined game as a unit last week. Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams' emergence takes a lot of pressure off veterans Todd Heap and Derrick Mason.
They have allowed only two sacks in the past three games. Jonathan Ogden has rebounded from a slow start. Keydrick Vincent has a groin injury, and rookie Chris Chester is a possibility at right guard.
Total (5) Rushing (2) Passing (12)
Trevor Pryce is easing preseason concerns that he didn't have anything left. Kelly Gregg had a rare off game against All-Pro center Kevin Mawae. Haloti Ngata struggled at times as a run-stopper. Terrell Suggs isn't playing at an optimal level against good tackles.
Since Baltimore will be without Ray Lewis again, it's converted lineman Jarret Johnson's turn. Bart Scott will play Lewis' normal spot with Johnson sliding over. Adalius Thomas has already tied his career-high with eight sacks.
Ed Reed needs to start help out struggling Samari Rolle more. The scouting department is beaming about fifth-round safety find Dawan Landry. Chris McAlister's temper flared last week when he head-butted a Titan. Is this the WWE?
Matt Stover has connected on a franchise-record 36 consecutive field goals, including 16 out of 16 this season. Return specialist B.J. Sams has been off his game lately. Rookie punter Sam Koch continues to impress with his hang time along with his work as a holder.
Total (9) Rushing (1) Passing (30)
Which Michael Vick will be on display in Baltimore today? Is it the dangerous passer who lights up defenses with his feet and arm? Or will it be the erratic, inaccurate turnover machine that occasionally manifests himself? Running backs
Warrick Dunn is one of the most elusive, versatile and tougher undersized runners in the game. Rookie runner Jerious Norwood is no slouch, either, as part of the top-ranked running game in the league.
Michael Jenkins, Ashley Lelie and Roddy White are the archetypes of the big, fast and occasionally frazzled wideout. All are capable of game-breaking impacts, but also tend to drop way too many passes. Tight end Alge Crumpler is Vick's ace.
An underrated group that has a reputation under Alex Gibbs of attacking defenders' knees to skirt the letter of the rulebook, the Falcons have injury issues at guard and Matt Lehr hasn't regained his starting job after a steroid suspension.
Total (19) Rushing (9) Passing (30)
With both starting defensive ends, John Abraham and Patrick Kerney, out and tackles Rod Coleman and Grady Jackson banged-up, the Falcons look vulnerable up the middle. Where will the pass rush come from?
Former Ravens starter Ed Hartwell has talked a much better game than he's played since arriving in Atlanta. Keith Brooking is the glue of this defense. Michael Boley is underrated.
DeAngelo Hall headlines a terrible secondary whose best safety, Lawyer Milloy, has lost his bite. Rookie corner Jimmy Williams is likely to start today for Jason Webster. McNair has to be licking his chops.
Ageless Morten Anderson can still kick. He has converted 13 of 15 field goals this season, but lacks the distance of his youth. Allen Rossum is a dangerous return specialist.
EDGES: Quarterback: Baltimore; Running back: Atlanta; Receivers: Baltimore; Offensive line: Baltimore; Defensive line: Baltimore; Linebackers: Baltimore; Secondary: Baltimore; Special teams: Baltimore.
How the Ravens can win
1. Contain quarterback Michael Vick. Vick is coming off one of his worst performances this year, and the Ravens can't allow him to generate confidence and break the game wide open with his electrifying mobility and arm strength.
2. Stop the run. At times, the Ravens looked soft upfront last week against Tennessee. Atlanta sports the top-ranked running game in the NFL with Vick, Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood. Plus, Ray Lewis is likely to be out again.
3. Throw it often. Besides gifted, albeit temperamental cornerback DeAngelo Hall, this is a terrible secondary that ranks 30th in the NFL and has allowed 232.9 passing yards per contest.
How the Falcons can win
1. Go after Samari Rolle. Rolle has proved vulnerable to the big play and is guessing more often than he's using sound coverage techniques. Vick has decent, sizable vertical threats to choose from.
2. Rush Steve McNair. Since the Ravens' running game isn't much of a factor, the Falcons should concentrate their energies on pressuring him. Falcons defensive boss Ed Donatell needs more creative schemes with so many starters out.
3. Get the football to Warrick Dunn. Dunn remains one of the most dangerous, consistent runners in the game and has a 90-yard run to his credit and an average of 4.4 yards per carry with 847 yards of total offense.
TODAY'S KEY MATCHUPS
Ravens LB Adalius Thomas vs.
Falcons QB Michael Vick
Thomas is likely to be shadowing the multi-dimensional star, but not because he broke Vick's leg in a preseason game two years ago. With uncanny speed and field awareness for an athlete who stands 6-foot-2 and 270 pounds he's capable of dealing with Vick's acceleration and moves.
Ravens WR Derrick Mason
Falcons CB DeAngelo Hall
Since the bye week, the Baltimore Ravens' offensive line has allowed only two sacks in the past three games. They have surrendered just 14 this season, which puts them on pace to allow just under 25 for the season, well below their record-low of 35 allowed during the 2004 campaign. In the last three games, the offense has averaged 362.6 yards, up from a 271.6 average in the first six weeks.
Three downs with …
Falcons running back
1. On whether Ray Lewis' absence will invite more running plays: "No, we're not going to let one guy dictate what we do, but we know that he's a big factor. He's a key for those guys, and without him, I don't really think a lot changes. They still have a lot of talented players. They are still a top-ranked defense. So, it's going to be tough, no matter if Ray is on the field or he is off. They still have a lot of guys who can make plays, who have been Pro Bowl players and MVPs. It's going to be tough sledding for us."
2. On the Falcons' morale during a losing streak: "We just know right now that the NFC is tough. We're in the middle of the pack. You have to try to find a way to climb your way out of this hole. When you lose two in a row, you can get down on yourself. Guys are staying positive right now. We realize there's still a long way to go before the season is over with. Right now, we're just trying to figure out a way to beat the Ravens."
Three downs with
Ravens linebacker Bart Scott
1. On the number of yards allowed recently: "The yards we have given up over the last three games, well, it wasn't Ravens football. We have to come out faster and really establish ourselves early in the game. Guys got dinged-up against Tennessee and we were making adjustments on the fly. Once we got to sit down and draw it up in the dirt, we were fine."
2. On what makes Michael Vick so dangerous: "I think one of his strengths is being able to buy time with his feet. It's tough to plaster a receiver for five or 10 seconds when he is creating time and moving around and running left and right and receivers are breaking off routes. It's like playing in the sand. He'll just break off and do anything. You can't defend that."
3. On the challenge of playing without Ray Lewis: "Everybody else has to take a little bit more on themselves because he commands so much respect from the opposing team. He is like our quarterback out there. When he's not out there, you lose a voice and you lose a coach. When he's out there, he's yelling plays out and you keep quiet because you know you only need one guy talking."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.