It's weeks like this one that make it fun to be a football fan. If you only allow yourself to truly get excited about playoff games you're really missing out. That's why seasons like 2008, when the Patriots traveled through a warm, cuddly schedule of the NFC and AFC West divisions that made an 11-5 record sans Tom Brady possible, was never really that exciting. Not just because Matt Cassel was playing QB.
This year there is no rest for the wicked young Patriots. We've already been beaten over the head with lowlights of the Ravens mopping the field turf of Gillette Stadium with the Welker-less Pats but now it is time to write a new chapter of an emerging Baltimore-New England rivalry.
If there had to be a consensus best team in the NFL right now at week six, the Ravens would be it. However they are not a perfect football team just yet.
It won't be easy, but the Patriots could pull this one off and answer a great many questions that are currently swirling around this team. The game plan after the jump...1. STOP THE RUN
Despite the addition of two more savvy veteran receivers this season, the Ravens remain a team whose running game makes it all work. The Ravens have a variety of weapons from the backfield, and an enormous, physical offensive line. This will be an excellent test for the Patriots defensive line, as well as Brandon Spikes. The Patriots were extremely limited with Gary Guyton at the 34 Mike linebacker position in 2009, and many of the Ravens runs went right at him. It will be interesting to see if Brandon Deaderick or Ron Brace see more time at defensive end. As we've seen with the defensive game plans this season we can expect a lot of the 34 defense. Mike Reiss wondered during his podcast with Tedy Bruschi if the Pats might show some 43 defense in an effort to better control the line of scrimmage, while also throwing a curve ball at old defensive coordinator. I consider this somewhat unlikely since we have yet to see a 43 defense in 2010. One way or another Vince Wilfork, Mike Wright, Gerard Warren and whoever else need to play huge.
2. GET FLACCO OFF THE MARK
Hat tip to Tedy Bruschi for this element of the game plan. As he explained in his podcast with Reiss it will be vital to force Flacco out of his comfort zone and force him to throw on the move (something he's actually still pretty good at). Bruschi specifically mentioned the importance of getting push up the middle from interior defensive lineman like Myron Pryor and Mike Wright. I've been fairly critical of the these two players as part of the pass rush problems. This game will be a chance for them to show us something.
3. DON'T BLINK
We've all seen the countless numbers of times the Ravens have let a play that doesn't go their way force them to implode. Whether it was Bart Scott firing the refs' flag into the stands in 2007, or Ray Lewis having a meltdown after Tom Brady lobbied for, and got, a crucial penalty after Terrell Suggs kinda sorta fell near his knees. The key for the Patriots is to maintain a level head and keep chipping away no matter what happens over the course of the game early on. If they do that it's very possible that the Ravens will give them the game with a turnover or stupid penalties. This key to the game is really the key to the Patriot Way as I see it.
4. NO MOSS DOESN'T MEAN NO SPREAD
Granted the Broncos have zero running game, but they still decided to attack the Ravens through the air and I'd bet Bill Belichick sees it the same way Josh McDaniels saw it. If there is a weakness to Baltimore it's the Ed Reed-less secondary. Just because Randy Moss is gone doesn't mean the Patriots won't go with a Welker-Tate-Edelman-Branch-Hernandez spread passing attack. Even without Moss the Patriots short possession passing attack could put up a lot of yard on a Ravens defense that gave up 307 passing yards to the Broncos.
It's hard to overstate what a win over the Ravens this weekend would do for this New England Patriots team. If the win over Miami was a great way to enter the bye week, beating Baltimore would really start the march to the playoffs off on the right foot. But it's going to be a war.