It has become something that New England Patriots' fans are used to every week. The team has to grind out a close game that comes down to the last play. Unfortunately, the 10-4 Patriots were on the losing end last week against the Miami Dolphins by a score of 24-20. You rarely see the Patriots lose games in which they can clinch a division in, better known as a hat and t-shirt game.
However, the offense has not had a primary red zone target without Rob Gronkowski. This has led them to settle for field goals and have one of the lowest touchdown % in the whole league when they get to the opponents' 20. As for the defense, they still struggle late in games due to injuries and the depth having to play significant minutes. Plus, the linebackers have been one of the weaker units as we have seen with Dont'a Hightower's level of play. Now, the Patriots head back on the road to try to yet again clinch a playoff berth against an opponent that has had their number in the past.
The Baltimore Ravens (8-6) were written off by a lot of prognosticators in the regular season after the losses of veteran leaders like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Anquan Boldin. Once again, the NFL sees what kind of magic general manager Ozzie Newsome can work. Last week, Baltimore needed six Justin Tucker field goals to win at the Lions, but the defense is still a top ten unit in yards allowed and points allowed.
While Baltimore has won four straight games, they do have some issues on the offensive side. Quarterback Joe Flacco (18 touchdowns, 17 interceptions) will be wearing a brace on his left knee after suffering a sprained MCL Monday night. On the ground, Ray Rice has had a disappointing season as he is battling a hip injury. The Ravens' ground attack has just 2.97 yards per carry this season. That being said, the Patriots will be looking for revenge on the Ravens after Baltimore dominated the second half in last year's AFC Championship Game in Foxboro. This game promises to be another classic.
Here are my three keys to this Sunday's game (4:25 ET, CBS) in Baltimore:
Getting A Leg Up: Whenever you have a matchup that has been as close as these two teams, always look for it to come down to the kicking game. That has been the case in two of the last three meetings between the Patriots and the Ravens. One game ended on a missed field goal (2011 AFC Championship Game) and the other ended on a controversial good field goal. This season, this game has two of the best kickers in the NFL. Stephen Gostkowski for the Patriots has made the 2nd most field goals in the league this season with 32. However, Gostkowski had a rough week last week with a missed field goal and kicking the ball out of bounds with 4:00 to go to set up Miami's game-winning drive.
As for the Ravens, Justin Tucker has been as automatic as they come. He has hit 33 straight field goals, including the game-winning kick from 61 yards out on Monday night. Both of these offenses have struggled to find the endzone at times, so this game could come down to these kicker. Better have the timeouts ready to try to ice them at the end.
Flacco Fleeces The Pats: Ravens' quarterback Joe Flacco has taken a lot of heat after signing the lucrative contract extension after his Super Bowl win last season. He has made some bad decisions this season including a three interception against the Vikings two weeks ago. That being said, the former Delaware product has solid numbers against the Patriots (2009 AFC Wild Card withstanding). In his career, Flacco has 12 passing touchdowns and four interceptions in six career meetings. 6 of those touchdowns have come in the last two meetings.
The Patriots' defense will have their hands full, but Baltimore has struggled to find reliable pass catching options. Torrey Smith does have over 1,000 yards receiving. Other than Smith, only two players on the team have more than 400+ yards receiving (Marlon Brown and Jacoby Jones). With Baltimore struggling on the ground, keep a close eye on Flacco's mobility with the MCL sprain as well as the shots downfield since this Ravens' passing offense has been more boom or bust with some of the deep passes they've attempted.
Dynamite Daryl: Earlier, I talked about the Patriots' struggles at middle linebacker without Jerod Mayo. Baltimore lost a key veteran in the middle during the offseason with the retirement of Ray Lewis. Enter in 10-year veteran Daryl Smith. Smith was a player that was called “fantastic” by Tom Brady earlier this week. He has commanded the middle well for Baltimore, leading the team in tackles (107) and has three interceptions on the season. He and Elvis Dumervil (9.5 sacks) have been new additions to a Ravens' defense that still is one of the more formidable units in the NFL. Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees seems to have the right scheme to bother Tom Brady. Look for Smith and Dumervil to be huge cogs in that scheme that the Patriots will need to offset with a heavy dose of running plays. If they run the ball effectively, the play action will be put to better use especially since the Patriots have had recent issues with pass protection.
Both of these teams desperately need a win in this game. Both control their own destiny for playoff spots and in the Patriots' case, a 1st round bye. Two things are going to decide this game. For one, which side will be able to run with more efficiency? The second key is going to be special teams both with the kicker and the potential of big returns from Jacoby Jones. From the Patriots' side, it was great to see Danny Amendola have a solid game to pair with Julian Edelman. If Aaron Dobson returns from injury this week, he gives the Patriots that deep threat on the outside that the offense needs. Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins are questionable for Sunday's game, while Josh Boyce is ruled out.
New England has been a poor road team this season, losing four of its seven games away from Gillette Stadium. Both of these teams have had a habit this season of nail biting close finishes. Does anyone expect this game to be any different? Tom Brady has thrown for 300+ yards in each of his last four games with nine total touchdowns. It's the red zone that keeps tripping this team up. Plus, the defense that usually forces turnovers has gone 11 straight quarters without forcing a turnover. The Ravens find a way to win this game late on a final scoring drive by Joe Flacco.
Ravens 26 Patriots 24