Here are the 10 matchups we’re going to be watching Sunday night when the Patriots meet the Ravens in Baltimore:
Quarterback Tom Brady against safety Ed Reed. There’s a fantastic nugget in this story that really illustrates the chess match between the New England quarterback and the Baltimore safety. In last year’s AFC title game, Brady had a wristband with the words “Find 20 on every play.” (There's also this exchange here.) Brady has said it on several occasions -- when he breaks the huddle against the Ravens, the first guy he’s looking for is Reed, a safety with peerless ball skills and a knack for coming away with a big pick. (He already has two on the young season.) If Brady can steer clear of Reed (specifically, a Reed interception), chances are pretty good that the Patriots will come away with another regular-season victory against Baltimore.
Left guard Logan Mankins against defensive lineman Pernell McPhee. This one is brought to us by the Pro Football Focus crew: Baltimore is clearly missing Terrell Suggs, but they’ve gotten a boost from the 23-year-old out of Mississippi State through the first two games of the 2012 season. McPhee has registered a sack, two hits and two hurries, and has clearly made sizable leaps as a young defensive end in Baltimore’s system. He’ll be going against Mankins, who has helped stabilize the left side of the New England offensive line since his return of offseason knee surgery. Per PFF, Mankins has yielded a hit and five hurries in two games.
Running back Stevan Ridley against linebacker Ray Lewis. Not a head-to-head, every-down matchup, but Lewis will be the one looking to read and react in the middle when the Patriots hand the ball off to Ridley. The LSU product will be looking to duplicate his Week One output, when he rushed for a career-best 125 yards against the Titans. (Whether it was an attempt to change things up or a personnel wrinkle, Ridley’s numbers plunged in the second half against the Cardinals -- after he had 11 carries for 54 yards in the first half, he had seven carries for 17 yards in the second half. Just one of several odd things about the New England offense against Arizona.) As for Lewis, he’ll be a part of a Baltimore run defense that is looking to shape up after getting beaten up pretty badly in the first two weeks of the season -- BenJarvus Green-Ellis (Bengals) and LeSean McCoy (Eagles) have combined for 172 rushing yards and two touchdowns against them in the first two weeks.
Linebacker Brandon Spikes against running back Ray Rice. Take the Ridley-Lewis matchup and flip it, and you’ve got Spikes against Rice. While Spikes doesn’t have Lewis’ resume, he remains (along with Jerod Mayo), the Patriots’ primary run stopper, and he was part of a group that held Tennessee’s Chris Johnson to four yards on 11 carries in Week One. New England did an excellent job slowing down the Arizona run game as well, holding the Cards to 3.2 yards per carry in Week Two. The job will be considerably more difficult this week, as the Patriots have to deal with Rice, a bowling ball of a runner who is averaging an astonishing 6.4 yards every time he gets the ball on the ground. Rice has always been a thorn in New England’s side -- as PFF reminded us this week, in the last three meetings between these two teams, Rice has produced yards from scrimmage totals of 78, 126 and 159.
Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork against center Matt Birk. Two great veterans will be going head-to-head in the trenches on Sunday -- the battle between Wilfork and Birk will go a long way toward determining which side comes out on top, particularly when it comes to slowing down the Baltimore no-huddle offense. This will be a big battle when it comes to the Ravens’ run game: as Nuggetpalooza tells us, the Ravens have held their own running left (4.47; 7th) and right (4.60; 13th) so far in 2012, but they’ve really gashed defenses right up the gut, averaging a league-high 7.90 yards per carry up the middle. The Ravens’ home-road splits when it comes to the no-huddle are indicative of a team that will be very interested in keeping their foot on the gas this Sunday night. If Wilfork and the rest of New England’s defensive front can slow Baltimore’s offense down -- particularly when the Ravens try and open a drive in the no-huddle -- history tells us that the Ravens will try and abandon the plan.
Safety Patrick Chung against tight end Ed Dickson. The Ravens’ tight ends have become a big part of their uptempo offense, and Dixon (and Dennis Pitta) will present a challenge to the New England defense, which has struggled to contain opposing tight ends over the last year-plus. (Dickson and Pitta have combined for 16 catches for 183 yards and a touchdown through two games.) Chung and Dixon certainly has some familiarity -- they were college teammates together at Oregon. While Chung won’t be in single coverage all the time against Dixon, he’ll play a large role in trying to slow him both tight ends.
Cornerback Devin McCourty against the Baltimore receivers. If you trashed McCourty for his performance last season, do yourself a favor and buy the NFL Game Rewind Package and watch the coaches’ film of his performance against the Titans and Cardinals. As much as McCourty struggled through much of last season, you have to acknowledge that through two games this season, he’s turned things around. Through two games, he’s allowed four passes, all of them in Week One against Tennessee. And last week against the Cardinals, he broke up two passes and blanked the Arizona receivers (including the All-World Larry Fitzgerald when McCourty was in coverage) on the four passes thrown into his coverage. Whether it’s the speedy Torrey Smith or the steady veteran Anquan Boldin, McCourty will be one of the primary defenders when it comes to slowing down the Baltimore passing game.
Defensive end Chandler Jones against left tackle Michael Oher. The New England rookie has already proven to be a tough matchup off the edge, as he won most of his individual battles in the first two games against the Titans (where he came away with a strip sack against Tennessee left tackle Michael Roos in his NFL debut) and the Cardinals (where he proved to be a handful for Arizona left tackle D’Anthony Batiste). This weekend, he’ll be going against Oher, who has been relatively sturdy over the course of his career but has struggled going against faster defensive ends (he allowed a sack and a forced fumble to Trent Cole of the Eagles last weekend). It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Ravens try and utilize an extra tight end or back (to chip) in hopes of lending a hand to Oher.
The Patriots offense against defensive back Bernard Pollard. Pollard, who already has a couple of big pelts on the wall when it comes to working against the Patriots, will likely command some attention this week on the national broadcast as a Patriot killer. While Pollard insists he doesn’t want to be known as “that guy,” it’s hard not to acknowledge some odd forces at work when he goes up against the New England offense. It’s worth mentioning that he’s probably not going to be 100 percent Sunday because of a rib injury he suffered last week against the Eagles, but he’s maintained all week that he’ll be ready to roll on Sunday night.
The Patriots’ specialists against their collective memory of last week. Stephen Gostkowski made four straight field goals to open the game (including a pair from 50-plus yards), but his miss at the end of the contest and Zoltan Mesko’s blocked punt combined to make it one of the worst halves of football for New England’s special teamers in recent memory. This game will be close, and could very well be won or lost on special teams. It’s important for both Gostkowski and Mesko to have short memories when it comes to last week’s loss to Arizona. (On the topic of special teams, it’s also worth mentioning that the last time the Patriots had a kickoff return of 40 or more yards was when offensive lineman Dan Connolly went for 71 yards against the Packers in December 2010. Per Nuggetpalooza, that was 84 kickoffs ago.)