Big game in prime-time for the New England Patriots against the Baltimore Ravens on NBC on Sunday Night. The Patriots travel to Baltimore to take on the 1-1 Ravens in a re-match of the AFC Championship game that was highlighted by two key errors by Baltimore players no longer employed by the team. Former Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff famously missed a short field goal attempt to tie the game
The Patriots come to Baltimore on Sunday with an inconsistent offense and a top-three defense through two games. Quarterback Tom Brady has been sacked five times in the first two games, and the team is still working right tackle Sebastian Vollmer into a full role as he has alternated with Marcus Cannon. Add in right guard/center Dan Connolly having been out with a concussion, and the offensive line which was still working in a new left tackle (Nate Solder), a left guard coming back from serious knee surgery (Logan Mankins) and a revolving door at center and right guard with long-time stalwart Dan Koppen cut and last year's pro bowl guard Brian Waters refusing to report and this line has justifiably struggled so far this young season (the Boston Globe reported this week that Waters reneged on a deal to return, then turned down an offer to triple his salary. I think that officially absolves the Patriots of any shenanigans and potential wrong-doing in the negotiations with a player under contract as they have not done anything short of bending over backwards to accommodate Waters).
The Patriots have a tough match-up to get their offense on track. The key to beating Baltimore will be getting their linebackers up to stop Steven Ridley and allowing Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski to take up the open spaces on the field due to Baltimore over-committing to the play-action fake. If Brandon Lloyd can get deep early and keep Ed Reed away from the line of scrimmage, that too will be a big help to the running and short-passing game. Ray Lewis has never had to over-commit to the run against New England until now. If the play-action pass can keep him bottled up at the line of scrimmage, he is not going to be able to drop back quickly enough on his old legs to make a play.
The Patriots finally have a defense that can take away the power running game of Ray Rice. The "big three from the SEC" linebackers (Jerod Mayo, Dant'a Hightower, and Brandon Spikes) are primed to take the running game off the table against any running back, even one like Rice who has gashed the Patriots in the past. Expect the secondary to target wide receiver Anquan Boldin (especially with deep-threat wide receiver Torrey Smith possibly out due to a death in the family), and force quarterback Joe Flacco to play a perfect game to win. If the Patriots' secondary continues their strong play by getting the defense off the field on third down and letting the offense grind out some long scoring drives, they have a chance to get ahead early and control the tempo and the game.
Simple formulas to follow to victory. The Patriots offense can get their points even against Baltimore if they can establish the run and work that play-action to perfection, but the Patriots defense needs to step-up to stop Ray Rice and force Joe Flacco into going away from his strengths