Nothing like an actual football game to shut people up.
Sunday night's Patriots game against the Baltimore Ravens can't come soon enough. Only then, once the game begins, will we get some peace and quiet in regards to all the melodrama that's been going on around the team since last Sunday's unexpected loss to the Cardinals. It's been borderline Red Sox-esque.
So from here on out, this will be a drama-free zone. No Where's Wes talk. No Brian Waters conspiracy theories. Just some simple analysis and examination of the league's Sunday night showcase, which also happens to be a revival of what's become one of the best, most heated rivalries in the NFL.
When the Pats hit the field at M&T Bank Stadium for this rematch of last year's AFC Championship, they will have a quite a bit of work to do. We just saw a team considered by most to be a bunch of nobodys in the Cardinals come into Gillette Stadium and hand it to the Pats. Who's to say it won't be a lot worse when they have to face an elite conference foe with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations onthe road?
That probably won't be the case, though. The Pats have to be humbled by what they experienced last week and since 2003 they have won 27 of 30 games the week after a loss. There has been a week to prepare for not having Aaron Hernandez out there with the rest of the offense as opposed to the two minutes they had last week and that time to sort things out on that side of the ball should aid the Pats, particularly against a Ravens' defense which is not itself, having allowed the sixth most total yards in the league through their first two games.
That could all be a moot point come game day. Baltimore, which lost to the Eagles last week, is 13-0 after a loss since 2009. The Ravens also haven't lost at home in their past 11 games there and may as well be out for blood considering how the game ended the last time these two teams met.
So enough talking, let's get right into this blockbuster of a game and take a look at some of the most intriguing matchups.
When the Patriots pass the ball.
Here's where things will get interesting in a hurry. With Hernandez, the Pats base set features two tight ends, two receivers and a single back. With recently signed Kellen Winslow in the fold, that look could well be shown in this game, although to expect Winslow to make much of an impact on an offense like this after having just three days of practice seems a bit foolish.
Instead, don't be surprised to see the Pats utilizing more three and perhaps even four receiver sets.
The other big personnel move from this week was the return of Deion Branch, who should be able to contribute right away thanks to his experience in this system. With Welker, Branch, Julian Edelman, Brandon Lloyd and Rob Gronkowski all out there, Tom Brady shouldn't have too much trouble finding anyone. The question is, will everyone be on the same page thanks to the void Hernandez's absence leaves?
Baltimore, again, is not the same defensive team we're used to seeing. Its best all-around player and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, is Terrell Suggs, he of the 14 sacks and numerous big plays last season. Suggs is out with an Achilles injury though, and another member of the Ravens' excellent linebacking corps, Jarrett Johnson, signed as a free agent with San Diego.
Add to that some other injury concerns (top corner Ladarius Webb and safety/Pats killer Bernard Pollard have both been limited in practice this week), and an older, not necessarily better Ray Lewis, as well as a first year coordinator in Dean Pees whom the Pats know very well and the New England may be catching the Baltimore D at a good time considering the transitions the Ravens are facing themselves.
The main question here is whether the Pats can not not only play a different style of offense than they've been playing for two-plus years now, but thrive in doing so. It's a process and they will undoubtedly look more proficient using more traditional multi-receiver sets than they did last week, especially if the protection, which has looked middling to this point, holds up. Still, it may be another week or so, and a game against a lesser foe than the Ravens for the evolving Pats to get it completely right.
When the Ravens pass the ball.
When Joe Flacco isn't complaining about how he doesn't get enough props or that the officiating cost the Ravens a game or that everything is just so unfair, he's a pretty decent QB. If he would just shut his mouth and play and not worry about what everyone else thinks of him or how they perceive him, maybe he'd have more energy to devote to truly being great.
That being said, he's off to an excellent start this season and the Ravens have some scary looking weapons at his disposal. After a tremendous Week 1 showing against the Bengals, he took a step back in last week's loss at Philly but still has posted a very healthy 91.9 passer rating thus far this season.
Wide receiver Torrey Smith is the fast as the wind deep threat and tight end Dennis Pitta has been prominently featured in the Ravens' no-huddle offense to the tune of 13 catches for 138 yards thus far. There's also venerable veteran Anquan Boldin for the Pats' defense to contend with and Baltimore's top back Ray Rice, who the so far excellent run defense will have to deal with in that regard, is one of the best receivers out of the backfield in the league.
Still, the Pats are much improved on D. It hasn't hurt that they've faced two substandard QBs in their first two games, but you can see a difference from the past two years regardless. The coverage in the secondary looks better, they are deeper and more competent looking back there with Tavon Wilson and Steve Gregory at safety and of course, having Chandler Jones to get after the passer the way he has in the first two games has affected every level of the defense. No longer do opposing QBs have all day to stand in the pocket and wait for the Pats' defensive backs to get beat seemingly every time they drop back.
Dont'a Hightower looks like a prime candidate to spend a majority of his evening on Pitta and the Pats, who specialize in taking away one of all their opponents' top options (hello, Larry Fitzgerald), should be equipped to have all hands on deck in an attempt to stop Rice, Boldin or even Pitta. Additionally, if the Ravens move to double team Jones at all, that should open up room for Vince Wilfork and Brandon Spikes to get pressure on Flacco up the middle, a big weapon for the Pats in the AFC Championship game.
The Ravens' offense is as good as it's been at any point over the past five years of this rivalry, but the Pats defense has improved too. In years past, this matchup would have looked very shaky for the Pats. Now, there's reason to believe it should be more even.
When the Patriots run the ball.
As mentioned before, the Ravens haven't looked that great defending the run in their first two games. Former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis carved them up in Week 1 and last week, Eagles coach Andy Reid actually realized that his team is better when he lets its best player, LeSean McCoy, run the ball. The result was over 100 yards on the ground for McCoy and Michael Vick and a loss for the Ravens.
Stevan Ridley saw his load lightened a bit last week against the Cardinals, but still looked tough, ran hard and had a pretty good game. Danny Woodhead also had a few carries and there's no telling whether or not Shane Vereen will finally be active and getting some run himself.
All of these circumstances point toward the Pats looking to stay balanced as they have in the first two weeks. They will have to contend with Ravens' nose man Haloti Ngata, right up there with Wilfork among the best defensive tackles in the league. No less an authority than ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi believes, "there isn't a player along the offensive line, not even Logan Mankins, who can block Haloti Ngata right now one-on-one on a consistent basis."
Ngata's brilliance aside, there should be room for the Pats to get their running game going against this defense. The Ravens have allowed an average of 129 yards on the ground over the first two weeks. This is a matchup the Patriots can exploit and win.
Prediction: Ravens 26, Patriots 21
Excluding the Ravens destruction of the Pats in the 2010 AFC Wild Card game, the last four times these teams have met, the margin of victory has been less than a touchdown, with the Pats coming out on top each time. Of course, all but one of those games were played in Foxborough. Again, Baltimore is extremely tough at home and will be as fired up as any team can be for a regular season game. And with the Pats in somewhat of a transition on offense as they learn to play without Hernandez, it feels like even though this one should be another extremely close, hard fought contest, it will be the Ravens who come out on top.