FOXBORO – The last time the Patriots saw today’s opponent, the
Ravens were laughing with their own fans who had taken over
Gillette Stadium, celebrating a blowout playoff win that ended the
home team’s season.
No wonder there has been a heightened interest for today’s
rematch. The goal is not only to wash away a painful memory that
haunted them into the offseason, but to create a better one this
The problem is that the Ravens can play. With a tough defense, a
varied offense and a top-of-the-mountain swagger, Baltimore is
primed to make a move into the NFL’s elite.
”They make you earn everything,” coach Bill Belichick said.
”We’re going to have to do a lot better job than we did against
them last year in the playoff game to be competitive.”
Here are five questions the Patriots must answer to do so:
1. Can the Patriots block big Ravens nose
tackle Haloti Ngata?
Officially, he is just one player. But the Ravens’ man in the
middle is listed at 6-foot-4, 350 pounds, and he’s likely bigger
than that. Few players in the NFL are as disruptive as Ngata, who
also possesses the ability to drop into coverage. Center Dan Koppen
will have his hands full with Ngata, though he’ll likely receive
help from guards Dan Connolly and Stephen Neal. If the Patriots can’t successfully move
him, there will be little to no space for BenJarvus Green-Ellis,
Danny Woodhead and others.
2. Will Tom Brady be able to take advantage of the Ravens
Without perennial Pro Bowler Ed Reed on the field, the advantage
swings to Brady. Sure, safety Tom Zbikowski has filled in
admirably, but Baltimore defensive backs could use Reed’s
influence. At times, they have struggled with their pass drops, not
getting as deep as they need to. If Brady can sell a play-action
fake to bring them up to the line, he might be able to throw over
them, even without Randy Moss. Brady must avoid another three-pick
performance like last year’s playoff game.
3. Speaking of Moss, how much will the Pats offense really
Belichick has downplayed any potential changes to an offense
that no longer features Moss. On Friday, he noted that defenses no
longer double-teamed Moss as much as they used to, an indication
that the adjustment might not be as difficult as some think. The
player most affected by the move figures to be Wes Welker, who
could find smaller spaces to roam. Perhaps the safety is a few
steps closer to the line. But the biggest difference would be that
Brady now has the opportunity to spread the ball around to the
receiver who used to be his favorite: the open one.
4. Can the Pats `D’ be able to make the Ravens offense
If the Patriots allow them to run the ball,
Baltimore will do so. Again and again. Ray Rice and Willis McGahee
will attack the Patriots defensive front seven, with
even fullback Le’Ron McClain contributing in short-yardage
situations. If the Patriots don’t stop the running
game, the Ravens can keep Joe Flacco to about 15 pass attempts. But
if the Pats can sell out early and clamp down on rushing
opportunities, Flacco will be put in the uncomfortable scenario of
having to win the game. That’s an advantage for the Pats.
5. Does Belichick have more bye week magic?
While the Ravens spent last week thumping the Broncos, the Patriots coaches were able to have
a few extra days to work on their game plan. That might be the best
news of all. Belichick is 8-2 coming off bye weeks, and he’ll need
a super scheme to knock off the formidable Ravens. Does Belichick
have one more in him? If he can confuse Flacco enough into turning
the ball over, that’s a start.