The Ravens’ defense is as good as advertised, but that doesn’t mean Tom Brady is destined for a miserable Monday night, or even that Baltimore ultimately will make the playoffs. However, a team doesn’t make it to Dec. 12 with the league’s top-ranked defense by accident.
“Tough to run against, very good on third-down, don’t give up a lot of points, turn the ball over,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, per the Ravens’ website. “You just can’t be sloppy around this defense. You have to take good care of the football and you’ve got to be physical with them. They’ve got some big, strong guys up front.”
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Those “guys up front” paved the way to a dominating 38–6 Baltimore win over Miami last week. Anchored along the line by potential Pro Bowler Brandon Williams and surprising rookie Michael Pierce, the Ravens held Miami 62 yards rushing—two fewer than Cincinnati mustered against that front in Week 12.
The Patriots can counter with RB LeGarrette Blount, who sits just 43 yards from 1,000 on the season. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that Belichick is more than willing to bail on his run game almost entirely in a matchup like this. When Tom Brady last faced the Ravens, in the 2014 season’s playoffs, he threw the ball 50 times; the Patriots’ backs, including Blount, carried seven times for 14 yards that day.
A similar game plan could be in play Monday, which would mean an even heavier dose than usual of quick passes to Julian Edelman, Martellus Bennett and the Dion Lewis/James White combo out of the backfield. The pressure then would shift off the matchup in the trenches to how the Ravens’ linebackers and safeties respond.
There, Baltimore is led by veteran free-agent signing Eric Weddle, who could be en route to chalking up his fourth Pro Bowl nod. LBs Zach Orr and C.J. Mosley also have played well this season, cleaning up plays behind the Ravens’ stout line.
Of course, Brady getting the ball in and out of his hands is nothing new, and it would help neutralize pass rusher Terrell Suggs. The 34-year-old Suggs is a Comeback Player of the Year candidate, with 8.0 sacks this season after a torn Achilles tendon cut his 2015 short.
“He’s been a great player for as long as he’s been in the league,” Brady said. “He just does a lot of things really well. He’s got all the rush moves, he drops into coverage, he bats down balls, he [crushes] the tight ends coming off the line of scrimmage. It’s not just sacking the quarterback like most defensive ends. He makes plays in a lot of ways.”
Baltimore’s defense has had its roughest days this year against versatile and varied offenses: Oakland, Washington, Dallas. The Patriots have the potential to join that list, especially if they can slip Chris Hogan or Malcolm Mitchell deep a couple of times.
Oh, and New England’s defense has been quite good, too. It has allowed just 207 points this season, tied with Baltimore for fewest in the league. (The Ravens’ defense has surrendered nearly 500 fewer yards.)
New England is a bend-don’t-break type of unit, so much of the outcome Monday could depend on which version of Joe Flacco shows up. Flacco torched Miami for 381 yards and three touchdowns last week, but he also has 11 interceptions on the year. His INT rate of 2.2% ranks near the middle of the pack, right between Andrew Luck (2.2) and Cam Newton (2.3).
It is a Baltimore passing attack that has taken off in recent weeks, though. Mike Wallace, Steve Smith and Dennis Pitta all have topped 50 catches on the year, while Breshad Perriman has scored each of the past two weeks.
Both teams would love to have this one as a potential statement win—Baltimore to show any remaining doubters that it can contend for the AFC title, New England to erase recent efforts against the likes of the Jets and 49ers—so expect it to be a battle. The line has come down two points from where it started, and it could keep tumbling right up until kickoff. The Ravens’ defense is potent enough to keep its team in it even if Flacco cannot replicate his Week 13 performance.
In the end, though, Brady is one of the few quarterbacks in the league who requires absolutely nothing from his run game to find success. He can do it again Monday.
Key player: Kyle Van Noy, LB, Patriots. After playing his way out of the Lions’ plans, Van Noy has found his footing in New England. He was on the field for upwards of 75% of his new defense’s snaps last week and now appears to be just Belichick’s latest revitalization success.
Remarkably, he’s gone a long way in erasing the hole left when New England traded away Jamie Collins.
Van Noy figures to see the majority of his snaps in passing situations moving forward, which means that Monday he could be unleashed as a rusher against Flacco or to help in coverage against Baltimore’s backs and tight ends. Either way, another solid game from him would push the Patriots closer to a critical victory.
Bold prediction: Brady throws a pick. Might not seem like stepping out on too much of a limb here, but Brady has thrown just one interception so far this season. Even for him, that might be an impossible pace to maintain—he led the NFL last year with a 1.1% INT rate; he’s at 0.3% through eight games.
The Ravens’ defense has 14 interceptions this year (second-most in the league) and has forced 22 turnovers in total.