In Week 14, the Baltimore Ravens will make their sole appearance on Monday Night Football for 2016. Their opponent will be the New England Patriots, who are cruising along with yet another season as a serious Super Bowl contender. The Patriots are currently 10-2, which ties them with the Oakland Raiders for the best record in the AFC.
Though the Ravens have already played both the Raiders and the 11-1 Dallas Cowboys, this Patriots game could be the most difficult game of the season. For one thing, it will be taking place in Foxborough where the Pats are 87-17 since 2005. That gives them a league best homefield winning percentage of .834 over the past 11 seasons.
There is also the fact that the Patriots have been on a roll since Tom Brady made his return from his four game suspension at the beginning of the season. They have gone 7-1 in the eight games that Brady has started this season. Six of those seven wins have been by 11 points or more and they’ve scored 30+ points in four of those wins.
Even with the Ravens’ defense now ranked first in the NFL in yards per game (296.1), there’s no denying that this is a tricky matchup for them. The Patriots, like they always seem to do with Bill Belichick, have found a way to stay prolific on offense. Even with star tight end Rob Gronkowski now done for the season, the Patriots are ranked fifth in passing yards per game (270.2). Brady has by and large spread the ball out to multiple targets, which could make it difficult for the Ravens in deciding how to make their defensive gameplan.
Gronkowki’s absence leaves Julian Edelman as the team’s leader in receptions (72) and yards (718) for the season. He is a shorter receiver who excels at catching passes in the slot. While Jimmy Smith will likely draw that crucial assignment and try to prevent Edelman from getting any rhythm in the receiving game, the Ravens also will need to account for Chris Hogan. During his first season in New England, Hogan has become the Patriots’ top deep threat as he’s averaging 20.6 yards per catch and he also has their longest passing touchdown of the season (63 yards).
With the ball being spread around so much on the Patriots’ offense, the Ravens are going to want to generate a pass rush instead of focusing on locking down any one offensive player. Brady has been sacked just 11 times this season, good for 33rd most in the NFL. His old nemesis Terrell Suggs, a player who has been outspoken in his criticism of Brady, will be trying to bring the pressure on Brady. Elvis Dumervil finally returned from injury last week to get his first sack of the season, so his return could also bode well for the Ravens’ hopes dialing up the pressure on Brady.
The Ravens surprisingly had an offensive explosion against the Miami Dolphins last week, scoring a season-high 38 points. It remains to be seen if that explosion was a fluke or a sign of things to come. The Patriots’ defense should be a good gauge for how improved the Ravens’ offense really is. Though they aren’t usually known for having an elite defense under Bill Bellichick, the Patriots are third in points allowed per game (17.2) and ninth in yards per game (337.2).
For some reason, Joe Flacco has enjoyed some of his best passing performances against the Patriots. The last meeting, which occurred in the 2014 AFC Divisional Playoffs, saw Flacco throw four touchdowns in what would end up a 35-31 Patriots win. There is also the 2012 AFC Championship where Flacco threw three touchdowns en route to the 28-13 win that sent the Ravens to the Super Bowl.
But he’s also struggled a little with interceptions against the Patriots. The Ravens were hurt in that 2014 playoff loss because of Flacco throwing two interceptions. In the Ravens’ last regular season matchup with the Patriots, Flacco threw zero touchdowns and two interceptions. That 41-7 Patriots beatdown in 2013 would go down as one of the most lopsided home losses for the Ravens with John Harbaugh as coach.
For Flacco to even consider going toe-to-toe with Brady again, he will need to minimize turnovers. This matchup may actually be in Flacco’s favor in this regard, since the Patriots have intercepted just seven passes this season. Another huge factor for Flacco having success in the passing game is if he can avoid taking hits. It’s no coincidence that Flacco enjoyed his best passing game last week in a game where he was sacked zero times.
With a lot of offensive line shuffling going on this season, the Ravens seem to have finally found a lineup they like. This will likely be their fourth straight game starting Ronnie Stanley at left tackle, Marshal Yanda at left guard, Jeremy Zuttah at center, Vladmir Ducasse at right guard and Rick Wagner at right tackle. They will be trying to contain Patriots pass rushers Trey Flowers and Jabaal Sheard, as well as longtime St. Louis Ram and new Patriots defensive end Chris Long.
Even despite the Ravens winning four of their last five games, the Patriots are opening as seven-point favorites for this Monday Night Football clash. Though the two teams have enjoyed thanks to their four playoff meetings in the last seven seasons, the Ravens are actually just 1-7 against the Patriots in regular season games. The rivalry has been boosted up by the Ravens’ 2-2 postseason record against the Patriots, with both of those Ravens’ losses being by four points or fewer.
This is not yet a playoff game for the Ravens, but it would be wise for them to approach it as so. In the Brady/Bellichick era, the Ravens join the Denver Broncos and the New York Giants as the only teams to have multiple postseason wins against them. The Ravens still have the potential to be a Patriots Killer and if they can pull it off this week in front of a national audience, you can be sure the entire league will be on notice.