Here are 10 things worth watching for in Sunday’s Patriots-Ravens game:
Winning the battle of third down: As artfully presented by Gary Mabry here, the Patriots have converted 55 percent of their third downs this season, the highest percentage in the league. The Ravens rank first in stopping third downs (27 percent) so far. New England has been successful on third-and-long (6 or more yards to go) 39 percent of the time (third) while the Ravens have allowed opponents to go just 6-for-40 (15 percent) in those spots (best in the league). In addition, Baltimore’s offense ranks No. 1 at converting those third-and-long situations (44 percent) while New England’s defense is second worst in the league at stopping those (also 44 percent). Whoever is converting those third-down opportunities — and conversely, who isn’t — will play a huge role on Sunday.
Complementary football: The Patriots have aimed to play ball-control offense through much of the first four games of the season for several reasons, not the least of which is geared toward keeping a young and untested defense off the field as long as possible with drives of 10-plus plays that eat up sizable chunks of the clock. However, it won’t be easy on Sunday — the Ravens have allowed only five drives of 10 or more plays this season. (They allowed no such drives last Sunday against the Broncos.)
Getting out to an early lead: The Ravens’ defense is at its most dangerous when it can turn an offense into a one-dimensional set, and if the Patriots fall behind and are forced to throw to get back into the game, Baltimore’s pass rush will be especially terrifying, even for a New England offensive line that’s allowed only five sacks (tied for second-best in the league). A quick start — New England has scored 28 points on its opening possessions of either half, most in the league — with just enough running to keep the heat off Brady would go a long way toward keeping the Ravens’ defense on its heels. (In this same context, it’s important to note that the Patriots lost much of their quick-strike ability to get back into the game with the trade of Moss, which makes comeback football all the more difficult.)
New England’s running game: Fred Taylor is now out for the foreseeable future, and so it’s the BenJarvus Green-Ellis Show. Green-Ellis will never rush for 1,500 yards, but for what the Patriots are asking him to do — hit that magic 4.0 yards per carry average each time out — he’s become a solid and dependable presence for this team. The team leader with 215 rushing yards on the season (and an impressive 4.6 yards per carry average, tied with household names like Rashard Mendenhall and Darren McFadden), look for Green-Ellis to pick up somewhere between 12 and 17 carries and, in a perfect world, finish with 50 or more yards on the ground.
Special teams: It seems like it was about 100 years ago, but the Patriots submitted one of the greatest special teams performances in the history of the franchise against the Dolphins — Pat Chung blocked a punt and field-goal attempt, Brandon Tate delivered a 103-yard kick return for a touchdown, Stephen Gostkowski had five touchbacks and a pair of field goals and Zoltan Mesko had three punts averaging 41 yards a boot, including a 60-yarder. On Sunday, when the Ravens kick off to the Patriots, it’s a strength-against-strength matchup: 55 percent of the Ravens kickoffs have gone for touchbacks this year, the highest percentage in the league. (In second place, at 44 percent, is New England.) However, the Patriots are one of just three teams that has attempted to return every kickoff this season (i.e. no touchbacks against). Eight kickoffs have reached the end zone against the Patriots, and they’ve run all of them back.
How Deion Branch is incorporated into the New England offense: Branch said Thursday that he’s ready to play as much as needed. While he doesn’t think he’s going to go wire-to-wire, it’s a good bet he’ll see action for at least half the snaps. For what it’s worth, the boys from Vegas have weighed in, setting the over/under on Branch’s catches at three and his yards receiving at 50.5. (If it was me — and not that I condone this kind of thing — I’d go over on the catches and under on the total yardage.)
Stopping Baltimore’s running game: Ray Rice torched the Patriots in last year’s playoff game, and is seeking his third straight 100-yard rushing game against the Patriots. The bowling ball of a running back ended up with 262 yards against the Patriots in two meetings last season, and is the centerpiece of everything the Ravens do offensively. Rice says it means a little something extra when you succeed against New England. “We don't want to single out the Patriots, but the success that they've had … you can’t forget that,” Rice told Baltimore-area reporters this week. “They have a long-term history of success. The organization itself … they've won Super Bowls, and I think we're an organization on our way to winning multiple Super Bowls. So, obviously, this kind of game you don't really have to ramp yourself up for.”
The post-bye week effect: Since 2000, Belichick and the Patriots have enjoyed great success in games after their bye week — the extra time to scheme has allowed New England to post seven consecutive wins following their week off, dating back to their last loss in 2002. In addition, they’re 8-2 after their scheduled regular-season bye weeks since Belichick took control in 2000. In all, the Patriots are 14-4 under Belichick after a week off, and have won 12 of their last 13 such games — the lone exception coming in Super Bowl XLII.
Dean Pees, who spent the last six seasons in New England before moving on to Baltimore, said this week that he’s seen Belichick’s post-bye week mojo get into the heads of several opposing coaches.
“That’s the thing about Bill,” Pees said. “He can do a lot of change, and he can do no change. So it’s going to be whatever he thinks they need to do on both sides of the ball and on special teams to win the game. I’ve been there before where we did a lot of change in the bye week, and there’s times when we didn’t do any change in the bye week.
“Sometimes you self-scout each other, and I can still remember one time we self-scouted ourselves on defense, and I noticed that on first-and-10, I never ran any pressures. And so I told Bill that during the bye week. I said, ‘I’ve studied myself and I’ve noticed that ... I’ve never pressured on first down. I probably should change that.’ And he looked at me and goes, ‘We’re No. 1 in the league in first-down defense. Why?’ OK, makes sense to me. So sometimes you study yourself [and] if you’re doing well, make somebody make you change. Don’t overanalyze.”
No Moss: A lot of ink has been used these last two weeks about how the New England passing game will change with the subtraction of No. 81 and the addition of No. 84. And while a lot of that is true — look for the Patriots to shift to more multiple tight end sets and short and intermediate routes that were featured in the earlier part of the decade — don’t look for a full-scale overhaul of the New England offense.
“The offense isn’t going to change. What we put in in the spring, what we worked on in training camp, we’re not all of a sudden going to go back and make up new plays,” said Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio. “We have a foundation that’s in place. We’ve installed an offensive system. Like we do any week, week-to-week, we look at the team and we figure out, ‘This play works relative to this coverage. This play works in this situation.’ So from our perspective, nothing’s going to change from a game-plan standpoint in terms of how we go about it.”
Redemption song: The humiliation the Patriots suffered at the hands of the Ravens in last January’s playoff loss still eats at them. From the 83-yard touchdown run in the first play from scrimmage to the way that Baltimore celebrated coming off the field, hooting and hollering at the expense of the Patriots, it’s all firmly embedded in the collective memory bank. After the game, former New England wide receiver Kelley Washington was enjoying himself at the expense of his old team, shouting at the crowd, “The era is over!” And linebacker Terrell Suggs told reporters moments after the game was over, “We knew we were going to come in here, beat them up, whip they ass, and leave.” The opportunity for revenge is there, and now, it’s up to the Patriots to take advantage.