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Unconventional preview: Patriots-Ravens

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  December 19, 2013 09:32 PM

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Welcome to Season 2, Episode 15 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday around noon. The 10-4 Patriots, coming off a 24-20 loss to the Dolphins, visit Elvis Grbac Jeff Blake Jim Harbaugh Tony Banks Trent Dilfer Kyle Boller Joe Flacco and the 8-6 Stolen Cleveland Browns Baltimore Ravens. Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let's get this thing started already ...

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THREE PLAYERS OTHER THAN TOM BRADY I'LL BE WATCHING:
1. Julian Edelman:
With 11 catches for 86 or more yards Sunday, the fifth-year receiver will go over the 100-catch and the 1,000-yard threshold. Pretty remarkable for a player who in his four previous seasons totaled 69 catches for 714 yards and seemed an afterthought in free agency this past offseason. Both feats are attainable today -- he's had 13 receptions in a game twice this season, including last week at Miami, and he's had 100 or more receiving yards in three of the past four games. Edelman's targets dipped when Rob Gronkowski returned -- he had just six receptions total in Games 8-10. But with Gronk down for the year and beyond, Edelman has re-emerged as perhaps Tom Brady's most trusted target, and there's an argument to be made that he's more valuable this year than Wes Welker would have been.

elammattfinn125.JPG2. Matt Elam: Never thought a rookie defensive back would get away with talking smack about Megatron, but Elam did. After suggesting that Lions superstar receiver could be dealt with physically because he is "pretty old" -- Johnson is all of 28 -- Elam went out and played the best game of his career, making 10 tackles and hauling in the game-clinching interception. He was nominated for AFC Defensive Player of the Week, while Johnson spent the week answering questions about his two drive-killing drops. Not exactly the outcome we expected there.

3. Dennis Pitta: Since returning from a career-threatening hip injury two weeks ago, the 28-year-old tight end has just eight catches for 72 yards, including 2 and 24 Monday night against the Lions. But Pitta has had his moments against the Patriots through the years -- he scored the go-ahead touchdown in last year's AFC Championship Game -- and Bill Belichick had high praise for him this week, calling him "an excellent player who does a really good job." Against the 18th-ranked Patriots pass defense, he could find himself with some chances to make plays, especially if Dont'a Hightower is matched up against him.

JUST TRY TO GET THROUGH THIS WITHOUT LAUGHING

Did I mention that this was from a preseason game? If you look closely, you can see that there's a flask of deer-antler spray on the ground right next to the pre-cut sod he likes to throw in the air. I swear the Ravens are better off without him ...

ogdenjonfinn1220.JPGCOMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD ... though that's not to suggest Ray Lewis wasn't a truly great player at one point in time -- a prolonged point in time, actually. I'd never dispute his Canton credentials despite his phony look-at-me showmanship. And I can't imagine an NFL team ever having a more successful, franchise-altering first round of a draft in which they had multiple No. 1 picks than the Ravens in 1996, their first year in Baltimore. With the No. 3 overall selection, they took tackled Jonathan Ogden, who is already enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Twenty-three picks later, the Ravens chose Lewis out of the University of Miami. Between the two of them, they played in 24 Pro Bowls and made first-team All-Pro 17 times. And to think I thought the Patriots had a great draft in '96 with the Terry Glenn-Lawyer Milloy-Tedy Bruschi trio.

RAY RICE HAS HAD A BETTER CAREER THAN I REALIZED
My first reaction when Rice, the Ravens' 26-year-old running back who is having a subpar year by his usual standards, said this week that he might consider retiring at age 30:

Good luck with that. There's a decent chance the decision will have already been made for him.

That's not to suggest that Rice a career-threatening injury is coming his way. It's just that a running back's NFL career typically lasts less than three years, the position being perhaps the most physically punishing of all. Yes, that estimate does include journeymen and other roster fodder -- an accomplished back such as a Rice has a longer run, so to speak. But playing four more years is no sure thing for any ball carrier. And Rice is averaging just 3.1 yards per pop this season.

However, if you look at Rice's top career comparables according profootballreference.com, it's possible that he will sustain his health and high-level of play to the point that the decision to retire will be his alone.

Consider the five backs most similar to Rice through the first five years of their careers:

Thumbnail image for allenmarcusfinn1220.JPG1. Marcus Allen: Sort of unique case. He buried on the Raiders' bench by a spiteful Al Davis for a couple of seasons, which probably ended up prolonging his career. He played until age 37, scoring 11 touchdowns in his final season.

2. Marshall Faulk: Last great season came at age 29, retired at 32, will be bitter about Super Bowl loss to the Patriots for all eternity.

3. Billy Sims: Knee injuries and personal problems limited his career to five seasons, and he was done at 27. Still, he averaged 5.3 yards per carry in his final season, 1984.

4. Barry Sanders: He actually did do what Rice said he would consider doing -- he retired at the age of 30, still on top of his game. Ran for 1,491 yards in his final year, 1998.

5. Walter Payton: Ran for 1,333 yards at age 32, retired following the next season.

The next five on Rice's list are Eric Dickerson, Tony Dorsett, Ricky Watters, Wilbert Montgomery and William Andrews. Great -- and mostly durable -- company. Maybe the choice will be Rice's after all.

PREDICTION, OR IT'S GETTING HARD TO REMEMBER WHEN THE RAVENS WERE A PUSHOVER FOR THE PATRIOTS
As my colleague Chris Gasper detailed earlier this week, the Patriots and Ravens really have become genuine rivals. The Patriots beat them in the AFC Championship game two years ago. The Ravens turned the tables in Foxborough last year, then went on to win the Super Bowl. Jim Harbaugh is 3-3 against Bill Belichick, and the mutual admiration there is obvious. While the Patriots, as admirable and resilient as they are, are battered right now, Baltimore is coming off a huge win against the Lions that improved their record to 8-6. I'm convinced, because of the Patriots' injury situation and the serious one-and-done potential for Peyton Manning and the Broncos, that a lower seed is going to be the AFC representative in the Super Bowl this year. I think that team will be the Ravens, who are no playoff lock yet but do have a fresh memory of what it takes to succeed this time of year. They're a bad matchup for the Patriots Sunday, and I can't help but think that will also be the case should they meet in January.
Ravens 27, Patriots 17

(Last week's prediction: Patriots 24, Dolphins 21. Final score: Dolphins 24, Patriots 20. Season record: 7-6.)

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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