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What to watch for as the Patriots visit the Ravens

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff  December 21, 2013 10:59 PM

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Going into Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens, the Patriots have playoff implications to consider.

A win and they're in. A loss and things get complicated. There are injuries that require attention and an opponent that requires some extra game planning from a defensive perspective. Week 16 will not be an easy one. But nobody ever said it would be.

Here's what we're watching as the Patriots visit the Ravens.

1. What will the offensive line look like? -- Left tackle Nate Solder has been ruled out of Sunday's game after suffering a concussion last week against the Miami Dolphins, just a week removed from suffering another concussion against the Cleveland Browns. When Solder was forced to leave the Dolphins game, he was replaced by Logan Mankins, who moved over from left guard. Josh Kline came in to fill in for Mankins at guard. That may very well be the case again this week for the Ravens. The Patriots could also opt to use tackle Will Svitek at left tackle, or swap Marcus Cannon to left and insert Svitek at right tackle. We'll see what they come up with.

2. How much will special teams factor into the outcome? -- Patriots place kicker Stephen Gostkowski is coming off his worst game of the season, having missed a 48-yard field goal attempt and getting flagged for a kickoff that went out of bounds. Conversely, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker is coming off his best outing of the season, going 6 for 6 on field goals, including a game-winner from 61 yards against the Detroit Lions. Add in two dynamic returners in Jacoby Jones for the Ravens and Julian Edelman for the Patriots, and this game has a good chance to be significantly altered by the kicking and return game, which would be fitting for two teams whose head coaches got their start as special teams coordinators.

3. How will the Patriots approach the Ravens defensively? -- In the second leg of the season, the Patriots have opted to go to a 3-4 defense that has significantly altered the productivity of a number of players, including Chandler Jones (11.5 sacks) and Rob Ninkovich (6 sacks). Ninkovich's quarterback hurries have dropped off quite a bit. In the first half of the season, he recorded 26 hurries. In the second half, he has 12. But that's not all. While the Patriots started the year as a top 10 defense in yards allowed per game, they've slipped to 24th overall (372.7) thanks to a scheme that has rewarded offenses that can run and pass effectively in the short to intermediate range. But after allowing a season-high 280 yards rushing against the Denver Broncos, the Patriots' 31st-ranked run defense has been improving, buttoning up the holes that were once so glaring. All of which is to say that the players have sacrificed, and the team has sacrificed its pass defense, to help shut down the run. This week, it helps that the Patriots are going up against a Ravens team that has had trouble sticking with the run and doing so effectively. They're ranked 29th overall in the run game, leaving the Patriots the opportunity to focus more on a Ravens passing game that attacks all levels of the field. So how will the Patriots approach this game? Will they try and shut down the Ravens' passing attack by dropping back into coverage, or will they make sure that their once-porous run defense remains a thing of the past?

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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