Will it come down to turnovers? Pats hope so

FOXBORO — Their offense has been adequate, their defense young
and wild.

But the
Patriots are solidly 3-1 thanks to
two monotonous clich?s that have conspicuously played out: They
have won the turnover battle in each of their three victories
(they’re plus-4 overall) and have showcased the importance of
special teams.

Two coaches’ clich?s that normally make fans roll their
eyes.

Roll on.

“They’re getting tipped balls. They’re getting balls thrown to
them sometimes. I’ve seen a couple of balls overthrown. They’re
just in position and catching it,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh
said of the
Patriots’ seven interceptions (two
returned for TDs), which are six interceptions more than
Baltimore’s renowned defense has in five games.

In their 41-14 victory in Miami thirteen days ago, the
Patriots became the first team in
NFL history to score touchdowns five different ways in the same
game (kickoff, interception, blocked field goal, rushing, passing).
The average age of their five TD-makers: 24 years. Youngsters are
exciting and often get better, Pats fans may eventually be thrilled
to find out.

Today at Gillette Stadium, the
Patriots will play the 4-1 Ravens,
who are minus-6 overall on the turnover ledger, but have been
turnover-free in two of their past three games.

The Ravens’ special teams also have been on heightened alert
already this season before facing Cleveland’s Joshua Cribbs and
Denver’s Eddie Royal, two dangerous returnmen who did no end-zone
dances on Baltimore’s watch. New England’s Brandon Tate already has
run back two kickoffs for touchdowns this season. Depending on
which way the wind blows, and whether New England’s defense
prevents Baltimore from scoring like the Ravens did in their 33-16
playoff victory here in January, Tate’s coast-to-coast chances on
kickoffs could be limited. Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff has 11
touchbacks, tied with Indianapolis’ Pat McAfee for the league
lead.

While the world waits for Ravens third-year quarterback Joe
Flacco (5 TDs, 6 INTs) to sustain his flashes of greatness, the
Ravens continue to lean on Ray Lewis and his guys.

Without uber-safety Ed Reed (PUP list — hip injury) back there
making opposition QBs panic, the Ravens’ defenese has just one
interception so far this season. Baltimore’s defense has a
league-low three takeaways through five games, but ranks third in
the league in total defense based on yards allowed, including No. 2
against the pass.

“The thing that stands out about Baltimore is just their team
defense,” said
Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “I
don’t think you can just isolate it to one guy. They play well as a
team. Everything is well-coordinated.”

As for attacking that defense, with Randy Moss gone to
Minnesota, the assumption is that New England has been reduced to
“dink and dunk,” which is OK with quarterback Tom Brady so long as
“it’s dink and dunk and score touchdowns.”

But yesterday never comes back. Deion Branch wasn’t an elite
receiver even while helping the
Patriots win titles, but was
fearless in big games (the anti-Moss). “(He was) reliable,
consistent, tough competitive … so I wouldn’t think he would
forget how to do those things,” Brady said of Branch.

But nothing during his four-plus seasons in Seattle indicates
Branch’s return to Foxboro this past week deserved all the
attention it received, other than to provide New Englanders a
nostalgic joyride.

Rather than Branch, it’s the young guys like Tate, Aaron
Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and BenJarvus Green-Ellis who will
determine whether the
Patriots’ tomorrows resemble their
yesterdays.

“You know, you say Moss isn’t there,” said Ravens cornerback
Fabian Washington. “But I think (Brady) won three Super Bowls
without Moss, something like that. So he’s going to find the open
guy.”

Prediction

Patriots 21, Ravens 20