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Ravens-Patriots: Five predictions for Sunday

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Ravens-Patriots: Five predictions for Sunday

Posted on 21 December 2013 by Luke Jones

The Ravens renew what’s become one of the best rivalries in the NFL in recent years Sunday when the New England Patriots pay a visit with playoff implications for both sides.

A rematch of the last two AFC Championship games is compelling enough, but the Ravens enter Sunday with a chance to punch their ticket to the postseason for the sixth straight year with a win and losses by Miami and San Diego. New England will clinch its fifth consecutive AFC East division title with a victory at M&T Bank Stadium.

These teams have dealt with their fair share of changes since the last time they met in Foxborough last January, but they find themselves in a familiar position with new faces emerging to replace the big names of past years. Counting the postseason, Sunday marks the seventh time the Ravens and Patriots have met in the John Harbaugh era — it’s been a 3-3 split — with few teams having as much success against New England coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady as Baltimore.

It’s time to go on the record as the Ravens try to clinch another winning season under Harbaugh and set up an AFC North championship game against Cincinnati in Week 17. Baltimore is just 1-6 in the all-time regular-season series against New England, but the Ravens hold a 2-1 edge over the Patriots in the postseason.

Here’s what to expect as the Ravens look to continue their four-game winning streak and keep themselves in position for January football …

1. Joe Flacco’s knee injury will affect his mobility, contributing to him being sacked four times for the first time since late November. One of the major factors for Flacco’s improved play down the stretch has been his ability to move around in the pocket and occasionally take off to gain yards on the ground, but the mild MCL sprain of his left knee figures to impact that to some extent. Trying to assess Flacco’s mobility during practices this week was impossible as quarterbacks only played catch from a stationary position during the open portion of practices, but he was still dealing with some swelling late in the week. The Baltimore offensive line has only allowed five sacks over the last three games, but Flacco will be more likely to stay in the pocket this week, leading to a few more sacks with defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich coming off the edges.

2. New England cornerback Aqib Talib will match up with Dennis Pitta, but the Ravens tight end will catch a touchdown. The Patriots have used the 6-foot-1 Talib against talented tight ends such as New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and Miami’s Charles Clay, so don’t be surprised to see him covering Pitta from the slot position while New England tries to use Cover 2 to contain the deep-ball threats of Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones on the outside. Talib is listed as probable on the final injury report, but he’s been dealing with a nagging hip issue, which might explain why defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and Belichick moved him inside last week in Miami. Talib will prevent Pitta from having a huge day, but Flacco will still find his favorite target inside the red zone for a touchdown after the tight end wasn’t targeted once in three red-zone trips last week in Detroit.

3. Brady will find rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson for a touchdown to help the Patriots’ recent red-zone woes. New England ranks 16th in the league in red-zone offense, and the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski has only made that area of the field more problematic for the future Hall of Fame quarterback as he lacks a big target to throw to. The Patriots were only 1-for-4 inside the 20 in last week’s loss to the Dolphins, but the return of the 6-foot-3 Dobson will help complement smaller receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. The Ravens must also keep tabs on Shane Vereen and his receiving abilities out of the backfield, but the league’s fourth-ranked red-zone defense will make the Patriots scratch and claw all day. Even with their personnel losses, the Patriots rank sixth in the NFL in points scored and Brady will connect with Dobson for a touchdown.

4. Backup running back Bernard Pierce will earn a season high for rushing yards with Ray Rice less than 100 percent. Rice and the Ravens have downplayed the mild quadriceps strain he suffered in the Week 15 win over the Lions, but it’s difficult not to be concerned considering how tough this season has been for the three-time Pro Bowl selection. Pierce has experienced his own struggles — averaging only 2.8 yards per carry — behind an offensive line that’s underperformed. If the Patriots do match up Talib with Pitta and rely on two high safeties against the vertical threat, the Ravens will receive better looks in the box against the league’s 31st-ranked run defense that’s surrendered 132.5 yards per game. It’s difficult to trust the Ravens to run the ball effectively against anyone at this point, but Pierce will eclipse his season high of 65 rushing yards set in Week 3.

5. An improved effort inside the 20-yard line will go a long way as the Ravens win a 23-17 final over New England. Baltimore has won four straight games but has only gone 4-for-14 inside the red zone over that stretch, leaving a slim margin for error and too much reliance on kicker Justin Tucker. That being said, Flacco has gotten the best of Brady in recent years and the Ravens are feeling more urgency than the Patriots with their playoff positioning. Sunday will be a nail-biter and you can never count out Brady when the stakes are high, but the Ravens will once again rise to the occasion to finish 7-1 at home. The offense will have a respectable effort on the ground and make a few big plays through the air to complement another strong defensive effort as the Ravens set up a massive Week 17 showdown with the Bengals.

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Ravens hoping T. Smith continues big production against Patriots

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Ravens hoping T. Smith continues big production against Patriots

Posted on 17 January 2013 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Much has been made about the acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib and the effect it’s had on the New England secondary, but you’ll forgive the Ravens and wide receiver Torrey Smith if they aren’t overly impressed.

Of course, Baltimore wouldn’t share such a sentiment publicly about the Patriots’ 29th-ranked pass defense, but a 38-35 victory over the Denver Broncos in which Smith shredded All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey for two long touchdowns won’t exactly cause you to fear New England’s underwhelming unit. Talib has provided a boost to New England’s defense, allowing the Patriots to move cornerback Devin McCourty to free safety, but they still struggle against the pass.

In two career games against the Patriots, Smith has caught nine passes for 209 yards and three touchdowns. His Week 3 performance in which he reined in two touchdowns less than 24 hours following the tragic death of his younger brother was one of the most inspiring efforts in the NFL this season.

“It’s not that there’s any difference against those guys,” Smith said. “I just play the game. I just happened to play well against them the past few times. It’s not like I have their number or anything. I just go out there and run our offense. I’ve been able to be OK against them – hopefully, it continues. But it’s going to be tough.”

During the regular season, the Patriots allowed a league-worst 74 passes of 20 yards or more, which should leave quarterback Joe Flacco licking his chops as the Ravens completed 62 passes of at least 20 yards and have repeatedly gone vertical in each of their two postseason wins this month.

Acquired for a fourth-round pick from Tampa Bay on Nov. 1, the mercurial Talib has stabilized the New England pass defense, but it’s difficult to imagine offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell shying away from the Patriots’ No. 1 corner after the Ravens went after Bailey repeatedly in the divisional round. In six regular-season games with New England, Talib made 19 tackles, broke up two passes, and intercepted one.

Labeled a “riverboat gambler” by Caldwell, Talib will likely be entrusted with slowing down Smith or Jacoby Jones in the vertical passing game, but the Ravens proved once again last Saturday that they won’t hesitate to attack any cornerback in the league.

“You don’t always go into a ballgame [with the thought] in mind that you are going to go after this guy or that guy,” Caldwell said. “You try to spread it around and look at what they do from a schematic standpoint and see where you can attack what best suits your offense. That’s kind of how we look at it more so than anything else.”

In other words, if Smith or Jones is matched up in single-man coverage against Talib with no safety help, you can bet Flacco will be ready to take a shot vertically.

Pees hiring hit man?

Asked how to make life uncomfortable for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees offered a humorous but candid suggestion about the man he watched closely in his days as a New England assistant to Bill Belichick.

“Hire Tonya Harding,” said Pees as he laughed. “If they were getting off the bus, I’d spray water outside the bus and hope it freezes. He is who he is. I went against him up there in practice for six years. He’s as competitive of a person as I’ve ever been around.”

In addition to trying to pressure Brady inside the pocket, Pees explained how critical it is to mix up coverages against New England’s many talented weapons, ranging from Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez to Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen out of the backfield.

Welker operates almost exclusively from the slot as he was targeted 125 times for 1,040 receiving yards from that position, according to Pro Football Focus. Cornerback Corey Graham will draw the daunting task of staying with Welker as the Ravens are expected to play the nickel package extensively, with Graham sliding inside as No. 3 cornerback Chykie Brown enters the game to play on the outside opposite Cary Williams.

“He is a very quick guy. He catches the ball well,” Graham said. “Brady is looking for him a lot, and he makes a lot of guys miss with fakes and things like that, so he is a complete receiver. I have my hands full in the slot, but I am up to the challenge.”

The Ravens will not have to deal with the matchup nightmare that is tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was placed on injured reserve Thursday after re-injuring his forearm against Houston last Sunday, but Hernandez also provides a unique blend of speed and athleticism at the position. Such an athlete at that position creates matchup problems as Pees must decide whether to use a linebacker such as Dannell Ellerbe or strong safety Bernard Pollard in coverage.

The answer will vary depending on the situation while facing a Hall of Fame quarterback, according to Pees.

“You can’t go in there and say, ‘The whole game, OK, I’m going to put a strong safety on this guy.’” Pees said. “That’s not going to take Brady very long to figure that one out, nor is it going to be the same if we end up putting a linebacker on him all the time. The key is to let them have to figure it out after the ball is snapped, who’s on him, and then you just can’t keep doing the same thing over and over with Tom, or he’ll gash you.”

Bouncing back from “special” kind of nightmare

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