BALTIMORE — This game was supposed to be the signature game of the Patriots’ early season. It was either going to rubber stamp their quest for another Super Bowl run, or provide the Baltimore Ravens with a mental boost after losing the AFC Championship last winter.
Now, both teams are just trying to hold on to a winning record. This will test the Patriots’ mettle.
Here’s what you should be watching for:
1) How the Patriots utilize the team’s set of tight ends — Daniel Fells has yet to see any action and Kellen Winslow was just signed on Tuesday. According to a report by ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Winslow will be active tonight, but it’s undetermined what role and how much prominence he will have in the team’s offense. Fells was a 15-game starter last season for the Denver Broncos but has been out of sight and out of mind with a shin injury. He’s listed as questionable for today’s game. It’s important for the Patriots to have a capable second tight end for the team’s offense to continue to be deceptive. We all know what Rob Gronkowski can do, but what will his counterparts contribute?
2) What kind of role will Deion Branch play? — Last season, Branch caught 51 passes for 702 yards and five touchdowns — as a starter. He returns to the Patriots as an unknown in an offense that is changing. Whether he plays or not is not a given.
3) Joe Flacco’s performance — Flacco is an up and down quarterback. When he’s rolling though, as he was in Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals (21 of 29, 299 yards, 2 touchdowns), he elevates Baltimore’s offense, allowing for Ray Rice to get a little more daylight. But when he’s average to marginal, as he was last week against the Philadelphia Eagles (22 of 42, 232 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception), the Ravens are susceptible to losing games they should easily win. Which Flacco shows up Sunday night will be a huge indicator of how the Patriots’ defense will fare.
4) The health of the offensive line — Dan Connolly is still recovering from a concussion he suffered in Week 1 against the Tennessee Titans. He was active for last week’s game against the Arizona Cardinals but didn’t start. He’s listed as questionable. Also listed as questionable is Logan Mankins (hip) and Sebastian Vollmer (back). That’s three-fifths of your starting line, with Mankins being the latest edition after what is presumed to be a practice injury this week. He was limited in practice Thursday and Friday. Add in Nick McDonald (shoulder), who hasn’t played this season, and the Patriots are pretty nicked up. What combination they use against the Ravens’ formidable defensive line will be interesting.
5) Lookout for Torrey Smith — Smith’s brother died in a motorcycle accident last night. If he plays, he’s an obvious boost for the Ravens on offense. He’s a big play receiver who has come down with catches for 52 and 40 yards already this season. That kind of deep threat has to be respected. But whether he plays is up to him.