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What to Watch For: Patriots at Ravens

Friday, December 20, 2013

 

It might as well be the post-season for the New England Patriots, even though a loss to Baltimore this Sunday won't end the year right away.

It might, however, bring the end to an injury-marred, star-crossed campaign a little closer to reality.

The nature of the present-day NFL is "on any given Sunday." In other words, anyone can beat anyone on any given game day. That has certainly been the case in 2013, and with every team in the league touched by significant injuries, it gets harder each week to separate contenders from pretenders...if you don't look at the won-loss records.

A week ago, the 10-4 Patriots were in position to play for the #1 overall seed for the upcoming AFC playoffs. Now? The stark reality of the NFL has the same Patriots' team - after a 24-20 road loss to Miami - staring at playoff oblivion should they fall at Baltimore this Sunday. In truth, New England isn't eliminated with a loss...but it puts them in a win-or-else game on the final Sunday against Buffalo just to get into the post-season.

That's a far cry from being the top seed. But the reality in today's NFL. Today's champ could be tomorrow's chump.

Add to this equation a team that has lost a significant number of key players from their lineup due to injuries - on both sides of the ball - and that adds to the immediacy of the current situation. Baltimore (8-6) is the hottest team in the AFC right now, having won four straight...and the defending Super Bowl champ Ravens still have a shot to win their division if they beat New England. A win on Sunday for the Patriots puts New England in the playoffs as AFC East champ for a 5th straight year, and back in command of their chase for a first-round bye. But a loss?

It doesn't end the season. But it sure does put those playoff plans on hold for another week...with only one week left to play.

Make the big plays

It always helps to make the big plays on offense, but in this instance, it's the Patriots defense that needs to rise to the occasion. The defense has 14 interceptions on the season, but they haven't picked off a pass in three of the last five games...including the last two. With Ravens' QB Joe Flacco having thrown 17 interceptions on the season, and having thrown multiple picks on five different occasions, the time is right for the New England "D" to come up with a big play. Or two. Turnovers can give the offense a short field, and a short field can lead to easier points on the scoreboard.

Pick your poison

Baltimore has had a tougher time running the ball so far this season, as Ray Rice's previous high standards haven't been realized behind a depleted offensive liine. But Flacco's targets at wide receiver are as dangerous as ever, with Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones both capable of beating a team deep. Jones has also been particularly effective in the return game for the Ravens, who have been offensively challenged this season (only one game of 30 points, five under 20 points). The secondary should focus on taking one of Baltimore's targets out of the equation, so they can at least see where the other darts might be headed.

Think end zone in the red zone

This is always the case, naturally. But without TE Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots managed to score only once in four red zone chances against the Dolphins last week...struggling as they did earlier in the year when Gronk had not yet returned to the lineup. Going up against a Baltimore defense that was tied for the top spot in NFL red zone defense just a week ago will make things tougher than they faced in Miami. Tom Brady and his offensive play-caller Josh McDaniels both need to figure out a way to score six instead of three when they get the ball in deep...and against the Ravens' improving defense, it won't be easy.

Projection:

Ravens 23, Patriots 20

 

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