By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots take on the Baltimore Ravens during Week 16 of the 2013 NFL season in a pivotal matchup for both teams. Originally scheduled for Sunday Night Football, the league has switched the game to 4:25 p.m.
This will be the last regular season road game for the Patriots and will be broadcast on CBS with their top announcing team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms on the call.
The Patriots (10-4) dropped a divisional game to Miami 24-20 last week but can still clinch a playoff berth and the AFC East division title with a win on Sunday or a Miami loss in Buffalo.
The Ravens (8-6) used six Justin Tucker field goals including a 61 yard attempt with just 38 seconds left to defeat the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football. With wins in their last two remaining games, the Ravens will win the AFC North title.
We here at PatsFans.com are going to try something a little bit different this season. Our new weekly column, the “Razor’s Edge” gives a quick break down on some of the key matchups of the game and what to look for in how the game plays out.
The Patriots and Ravens have a heated rivalry and have met 10 times including the playoffs with the Patriots having a 7-3 edge overall but with Baltimore winning the last two games including a 28-13 win in the AFC Championship Game last January in Foxboro. The teams have met only three times in Baltimore with New England holding a 2-1 advantage. Last season in Baltimore, the Ravens used a controversial last second field goal to beat New England 31-30.
The Patriots offense is having to change its identity once again, early in the season it had to rely on the new wide receiving core and deal with life without Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. They struggled to score and consistently move the ball as the new receivers struggled to find their way in the offense.
Once Gronkowski and Shane Vereen returned, the offense changed and scoring improved dramatically as both provided big boosts in the passing game for QB Tom Brady. Now with Gronkowski gone for the season on IR, the offense much change again and the red zone scoring, where the team was enjoying much better success, raised its ugly head again with the team going only 1 for 4 inside the 20.
Missing Gronkowski, Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins definitely hurt and took away the larger wide receivers who can go up and physically challenge for the ball. One area that they’ll have to lean on much more than they did in Miami is the running game.
The Patriots have three running backs that all bring different skill sets to the table in LaGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. And the team and coaches will have to find a bigger role for all three, especially in the red zone to combat the loss of the Gronk going down the stretch in the last two games.
Patriots RBs vs Ravens Front Seven- NE 118.3YPG, 4.2 YPC Edge Patriots
The Ravens are very deep and talented at the defensive line position and can bring in fresh legs to keep their players rested and effective. And no one is better at stuffing the run than Haloti Ngata who like the Pats’ Vince Wilfork is a big bodied NT who can eat up space and double teams and stuff the run at the point of attack.
Baltimore is still very tough to run against and it isn’t going to be easy by any means but…if the Patriots remain patient and Josh McDaniels mixes things up on offense, the Patriots can run on anyone.
Stevan Ridley should see an increased role this week; he’s the type of back who has given the Ravens defense trouble this season and if he can get to the second level can get some valuable yardage. Ditto for LaGarrette Blount who will also see a lot of work between the tackles on Sunday.
Patriots WRs vs Ravens Secondary- NE 272 YPG Edge Ravens
The Patriots offense in the passing game was very effective last week between the 20 yard lines against Miami as Tom Brady threw for 364 yards but struggled in the red zone going only one for four.
Missing was Rob Gronkowski, gone for the remainder of the season on IR, but also missing was WRs Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, bigger wide-outs who can go up in traffic and fight for the ball. They both will be needed this week to stretch the field and give Brady red zone targets against a Baltimore defense that is #2. If they can do that, then Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola will find a lot more room to cross underneath and find some space.
Baltimore has a very good pass defense and can after the QB with edge rushers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil and good physical corners with Ladarius Webb, Jimmy Smith and Corey Graham. Safety Matt Elam is like a heat seeking missile and has fit in well with former Pat James Ihedigbo.
The key for the Patriots is always protection for Brady and the offensive line is pretty beat up. Not a good sign when going into Baltimore for a key late-season game. With a lot of replacements on the line for New England, look for the Ravens to blitz a lot and test the waters early.
The Patriots defense has reached the tipping point with injuries, missing their three big men in the middle (Wilfork, Kelly and Mayo) has decimated the run defense. Now with all three starting corners playing hurt, the results in the pass defense has been clear to see.
Every week, opposing quarterbacks are having big games against the Patriots secondary as the defense is beginning to morph into the unit we saw the past few years that struggled in coverage.
Two areas that could help this unit is quarterback pressure and turnovers and they are not getting a lot of production from either. Last year the Patriots were a +24 in turnovers, this season they’re at a +6 and just a few turnovers at key times this season could have made a big difference.
The pass rush will have to step up these last few games to help out the beat-up secondary and Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are the two guys that are most looked to provide that.
Ravens RBs vs NE Front Seven- BAL 82.8 YPG, 3.0 YPA Edge Patriots
The Ravens have had little success at running the ball this season averaging only 3.0 yards per carry as a team and much of that rests on the shoulders of the offensive line that has struggled to open holes for Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce.
Rice is averaging a career low 3.1 YPA but Patriots fans will remember that he’s had some big games against them in the past and he’ll be looking to have a big day this Sunday on the big stage.
The Patriots rush defense, (31st in the league) is allowing 132.5 yards per game. The coaches have tinkered with it going to a 3-4 look but lately have gone to a 4-3 over defense that has had somewhat better results but is still a problem spot.
The Patriots get the slightest of edges here but look for Baltimore to try to run more this week. If the Ravens are able to run effectively, it opens up play-action for Joe Flacco and their deep passing game which they love to utilize.
Ravens WRs vs NE Secondary- BAL 247.1 YPG Edge Ravens
QB Joe Flacco has had his own struggles this year, completing 58.9 percent of his passes (310 for 526) good for 3460 yards with 18 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Much of that had to do with Jacoby Jones and Dennis Pitta being out with injuries and his protection suffered as well allowing 42 sacks.
But the offense is much healthier now and with Jones and Pitta back, the passing game is now loaded, Torrey Smith, Ed Dickson give Flacco plenty of places to go with the ball. Add in Marlon Brown who is a huge (6’5) target in the red zone and this offense has the capability to put up a lot of points. The Ravens will target the middle of the field, in the AFCCG Flacco was 8 for 8 for 80 yards and a touchdown targeting the short/medium range pass in the middle of the field.
The Patriots pass defense has been getting torched for the past month plus, injuries to the secondary, poor coverage at the linebacker position and a very inconsistent put New England in a tough spot. This week they’ll need to bring a lot of pressure on a nicked up Flacco (knee injury) or they’ll be in for a long afternoon. Look for Flacco to use Ray Rice much more in the passing game this week.
Special Teams- Edge Ravens
If there is a kicker having a more solid season than the Raven’s Justin Tucker…raise your hand.Tucker has been near automatic all season only missing two FG attempts and with less than a minute to go in Detroit, blasted a 61 yard field goal for the win.
New England’s Stephen Gostkowski has also had a great season but last week had a very forgettable performance. He had a costly 48 yard FG miss in the first half and a botched kickoff after the Patriots went ahead in the fourth quarter that went out of bounds setting Miami up for their winning touchdown drive at the 40 yard line.
Punters Ryan Allen for New England and Sam Koch for the Ravens are having solid seasons and boast virtually identical statistics. Both teams have solid coverage units that are consistently pinning opponents deep.
But in the return game, Baltimore gets a decided advantage; the dangerous Jones is averaging 28.8 yards per return (w/77 yard TD) as well as 14.8 yard per punt return. Back-up punt returner Tandon Doss has an outstanding 15.6 yard average as well. Julian Edelman who is always dangerous in the punt return game has been held in check recently and the kick return game remains a non-threat.
Patriots Player to Watch- Julian Edelman
Edelman is having a fantastic season with 89 catches for 914 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2013. Reaching the milestones of 100 catches and 1000 yards is easily within his grasp with two games to go. Predicting numbers like that for Edelman in the pre-season would have been met with…..skepticism to say the least.
He and Danny Amendola have become Brady’s favorite targets and both had fantastic games against the Dolphins last week. Baltimore will be looking to take away Edelman from Brady by jamming him and being very physical at the line of scrimmage.
Look for he, Amendola and Collie to run those crossing, rub-routes underneath to try to get some separation and open space for Brady to throw. If they can do that and get the ball in space, the Patriots offense will click.