BALTIMORE Ė Really looking forward to Sunday nightís game between the Patriots and Ravens. Itís been a while since New England has played a regular season game with this much meaning, probably back to the second Jets game last year. So it should be fun.
Even without tight end Aaron Hernandez (ankle), I like the Patriotsí chances in this this game. I think the matchups favor them, but Iím expecting a low-scoring battle that will go down to the final possession, as it almost always does with these two teams.
Here are my five keys for the Patriots to beat the Ravens:
- Beat up Baltimoreís offensive front: With the exception of whoever lines up against Ravens RG Marshall Yanda, the Patriots have the advantage with their defensive line. Right end Chandler Jones should be able to out-leverage LT Michael Oher. Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love should dominate the interior of LG Ramon Harewood, C Matt Birk and Yanda. And LDE Rob Ninkovich should absolutely be able to use his speed and experience to own rookie RT Kelechi Osemele. If the Patriots can dominate up front, that will affect RB Ray Rice and QB Joe Flacco.
- Make Flacco win outside the numbers: Flacco prefers to throw to TE Dennis Pitta, RB Ray Rice and WR Anquan Boldin. The Patriots tried to take Boldin away last year with both a linebacker and a defensive back, and did a terrific job until the Ravens finally began to run Boldin on out patterns instead of crossing and seam routes. Expect the Patriots to clamp down on his three preferred targets who, like the Patriots, make their living inside the numbers by muddying the middle of the field. That will mean that CBs Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington and Ras-I Dowling/Sterling Moore are going to have to hold their own against speedy WRs Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones down the field. The Ravens love to run double moves, so the Patriots have to be disciplined. But if they can make Flacco win the game outside the numbers, the Patriots will feel good about playing those odds.
- Bait Flacco: Everyone says that Flacco has improved, but I donít see it on film. Heís the same inconsistent guy. Heíll make an all-world throw, and then throw an interception into triple coverage. If the Patriots can disguise their coverages pre-snap, there should be opportunities for interceptions over the top against Smith and Jones, and with the linebackers underneath the tight ends. One of the linebackers is going to have an interception in this game.
- Pound it, then use a lot of play-action passes: The Patriots ran on the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, the problem was they didnít do it enough. Stevan Ridley should have a very big game if the Patriots stick with the run, and that will help the offensive line control the Ravensí rush, which isnít as good as years past. And there will be opportunities for big plays. The Ravens arenít very good at defending the middle against playaction because the ILBs, especially Ray Lewis who has lost a step, tend to overcommit against the run. Tom Brady should be able to hit Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker up the middle with play-action, even though the Ravens tried to muddy the middle of the field in January. There will also be plenty of chances for Brandon Lloyd down the sidelines, especially if he gets matched up with CB Cary Williams most of the game. Lloyd should be able to have a breakout game as long as Brady can manipulate S Ed Reed with his eyes.
- Hold the line: Quite simply, the Patriots need to hold their own against the Ravensí front. DT Haloti Ngata will lineup up all over the line, and the Patriots need to make sure they shut him down again. Heís due for a breakout game. Both RG Dan Connolly and LG Logan Mankins are going to need help against Ngata, and they should get it. Probably the more crucial matchup is LT Nate Solder against OLB Albert McClellan. Solder has issues against speed Ė heís susceptible to inside moves Ė that could get Brady creamed. Expect the Patriots to chip on the outside with the running backs.
If the Patriots can eliminate any coverage breakdowns against WRs Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, I think they can be very successful against the Ravens offense. The key to this game will be the running game of the Patriots so that they stay in manageable third-down situations, and then converting those opportunities better than they did against the Cardinals. The Patriots must execute better, and if they do, I like their chances to control this hard-fought game.
Patriots 20, Ravens 16.