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Baltimore Ravens vs New England Patriots

In NFL on January 8, 2010 at 5:56 pm

The Patriots and Ravens meet on Sunday night for the second time this season, and incredibly, this is the only Wildcard match-up that isn’t a re-match from Week 17. The Pats escaped with a 27-21 win in Week 4, as a Ravens drive stalled yards from the goal-line with time expiring.

The Patriots have been shaky since then though, despite the routine heroics from ‘Comeback Player of the Year’ Tom Brady. In fact, their defence has been so unreliable that even Bill Belichick has been reluctant to lay his trust in them at crunch time. This lack of faith led to his infamous 4th down call against the Colts in November, which must rank alongside Zidane’s bull impression and Jordan’s baseball career in the pantheon of bad sporting decisions.

Pats coach Bill Belichick has had a tough year

At a glance, the stoppers don’t look to be in the worst shape, ranking 5th in the league in points conceded (17.8 per game, stats fans), but it’s been their inability to do it when it matters that has really hurt them. Their loss to the Miami Dolphins, for instance, nearly dragged them right back into the dogfight for the Eastern Division.

They did rattle off three wins in a row after that to pull clear and seal their place though, and last week’s loss to the Texans shouldn’t be too much of a worry considering how little was at stake. But questions remain over just how good this year’s edition of the Pats are.

With Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren back from injury, and they should help keep Ray Rice and the revitalised Willis McGahee under wraps, but they might struggle to pressurise Joe Flacco.

They have an excellent young linebacking corps which includes Tully Banta-Cain, whose play has been almost as impressive as his name, and Jerod Mayo. But opposing quarterbacks haven’t been quaking in their boots, as they can afford to sit back against a D-line that generates less than 2 sacks a game. Joe Flacco might need all the time he can be given though, as he is not yet the finished article and has a workmanlike crew of receivers to aim at.

The New England secondary is a solid bunch, and they’ve managed 18 interceptions this year. They’ll have a good chance of adding to that total against the often careless Flacco. If they can pressure the youngster and keep the running game in check, they should give Brady the chance to win it.

Will the New England offense be the same without Wes Welker?

That’s the perfect scenario for Bostonians, because a ‘chance’ is all he usually needs. Reportedly, Brady has been playing through injury, but it’s hard to even tell. With him back, they are a far more threatening unit than last year on offense, and he’s managed over 4,000 yards with 28 touchdowns. It sometimes seems as though he and Moss were separated at birth such is their connection, and any time they need a big play, this duo usually has the answer.

The injury to Wes Welker will hurt them though, as he was rock solid in the slot and gave Brady great options. It brings rookie Julian Edelman into the spotlight, and it remains to be seen how he will react to the starting role.

Even more of a worry is the running game. Laurence Maroney is in the naughty corner after shelling the pill too often for B-Bell’s liking, so the ground yards will be shared out among the less than terrifying trifecta of Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and Fred Taylor. This could be a serious problem against Ray Lewis and the 5th ranked rush defence in the NFL.

Ravens dynamos Ray Lewis and Ed Reed must shoulder the burden on defense

In actual fact, the stats may flatter the Ravens a little, as they haven’t been the lockdown wardens of past years. They only managed one sack more than the Pats during the regular season, and the secondary isn’t the ball hawking machine it once was after injuries to the likes of Ed Reed. They’ve been vulnerable against the pass, and Brady is not the man you want to be facing with this weakness.

However, with Welker missing and Maroney benched, they do have a great opportunity if they can shut down Randy Moss. This would force Brady to put the ball into the hands of Edelman and his other less experienced weapons. Piling all the pressure on the Patriots porous defence gives the Ravens their best chance of storming the Foxboro fortress.

Should they limit the Brady effect, Joe Flacco will need to step up and improve his level of play. He was impressive in last year’s playoffs, but has suffered a slight drop off in his sophomore year. He could do with a new receiver or two, as only Derrick Mason is above average on this side. Mark Clayton’s crucial drop in their regular season meeting was not an isolated incident, and Todd Heap is reliable but unspectacular.

The emerging Ray Rice is Baltimore's best offensive weapon

The real key for this offence is the electric Ray Rice. If Flacco can find him early and get him rolling, everything else will follow. He’s racked up over 2,000 all purpose yards this season, and with Willis McGahee looking unstoppable last week, they could cause some serious damage.

Unfortunately, the key match-up in this one is Brady and Flacco, and this can only go one way. Despite a heroic effort from Rice and the defense, I think even a dinged up Brady will impose his will on this game and drag his side through in a tight one.

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