The Patriots and the Ravens come into this game after confusing losses and are hoping to get back on track to keep pace with the leaders of the AFC. Winner gets the inside track on a potential tiebreaker for a bye-week in the playoffs, loser likely falls behind in their division and will have an even steeper hill to climb.
Oh yeah, and this is the rematch from last season's AFC Championship game.
Let's take a look at five key pieces to this game:
5. Defensive Test - While it's true that the Patriots defense has undeniably improved upon whatever was thrown on the field the past two seasons, tonight will provide the first real test against an elite AFC team with a veteran offense. The Patriots played some very young teams in the first two weeks and the defense was able to hold- will they be able to limit Ray Rice like they did Chris Johnson and Beanie Wells/Ryan Williams? Will they be able to contain the receivers and tight ends like they slowed Larry Fitzgerald? If the defense can put together another strong outing this week, the Patriots have a very good chance of leaving with a victory.
4. Making ST Special - Last week was definitely a disaster for the Patriots special teams players. It seems as if every match-up between the Patriots and Ravens has come down to a last minute special teams play to seal the victory, especially with four of the last five games decided by under one score. Whether it's a Zoltan Mesko kicking spirals in overtime, or Billy Cundiff whiffing on a chip shot, the Patriots will need to make some plays happen on special teams. Every little bit helps.
3. No Huddle - The Ravens have tried to revamp their offense by including the no huddle approach, which works due to the versatility of running back Ray Rice, as well as their tight ends and receivers. The Patriots defense has to be able to adjust and prevent the Ravens offense from generating any momentum when they have the ball.
On the Patriots end, they're going to have to step up their offense. While their no huddle approach seems to rejuvenate the offensive tempo, they need to find any offense at all if they want to pull ahead of the Ravens defense. Last championship game, the Patriots posted the following splits:
No Huddle: 9/17 89 yards, 1 INT, with 2 INTs called back with penalties | 15 rushes for 38 yards
Huddle: 13/17 144 yards, 1 sack, 1 INT | 12 rushes for 50 yards and 2 TD
So what do these numbers show? Don't expect the Patriots to break away when they switch to the no huddle, but realize that they do most of their damage on the first play of the drive- you can get the feel for how the drive will result based upon how they start.
If the Patriots can effectively utilize the no huddle, there's a strong possibility they can put the Ravens on their heels and help out their defense.
2. Where's Welker? - The Patriots appeared to try and discover how life might be like without Welker on the field. The result? Nothing too pretty. How will the Patriots try and use Welker, who has historically been rather pedestrian against the Ravens? In his four games against the Ravens, while with the Patriots, Welker has posted 22 receptions and 172 yards, with no touchdowns. That's an average of just over 5 receptions for 43 yards. Can Welker break out and start his season, or will he be forced to take a more reserved role?
Of course, only five Patriots have topped Welker's high of 53 receiving yards against the Ravens since 2007. Deion Branch tops the list with 9 reception, for 98 yards and a TD in 2010, during his first game back with the Patriots. Let's see if Branch can capture that magic in his third stint with the squad.
The other players on the list? Rob Gronkowski with 5 receptions and 87 yards in his shortened Championship game last season. Laurence Maroney (?!) with 2 receptions for 79 yards back in 2007. Donte Stallworth with 3 receptions for 68 yards in 2007. And one more guy, who's the only Patriot to top 60 yards against the Ravens multiple times since Tom Brady took over the team.
1. Hurt By Hernandez - Ouch. The Patriots will be facing the Ravens without their most effective player. Hernandez has averaged 77 total yards from scrimmage in his two games against the Ravens. No other Patriot with multiple games against the Ravens can say they average over 70 yards/game.*
Who will try to replace the production that Hernandez always delivered? Can Julian Edelman step up again? Can Kellen Winslow bring anything to the table? Will Deion Branch find his mojo?
Lots of questions to ask. Let's hope the answers are good ones.
*Corey Dillon played one game against the Ravens back in 2004 and rushed for 123 yards and a TD.
Expect to see a lot of Danny Woodhead. You know how Hernandez is the only player to average over 70 yards/game? Woodhead is second on the list with exactly 70 yards/game, putting together 81 rushing yards on 17 attempts and 59 receiving yards on 6 catches. He does damage against the Ravens.
Julian Edelman is the only current Patriots receiver to register multiple receiving touchdowns against the Ravens- and Randy Moss is the only other receiver with 2+ receiving touchdowns. Not a lot of success.
Deion Branch has never lost to the Ravens while with the Patriots.
Tom Brady has faced the Ravens 6 times and is 5-1. On the other hand, here are his poor numbers against them:
126/222 (56.8%), 1372 yards (228.7 yards/game), 6.2 Y/A, 6 TDs, 8 INTs, 14 sacks, 69.1 QBR
With 4 yards on offense, Wes Welker can pass Kevin Faulk for most yards from scrimmage against the Ravens during the Brady era- Faulk has 175, Welker has 172. Branch can fight for the title as he stands with 167.