|12.06.16 at 8:50 pm ET|
The Patriots will not play a team with stronger mental toughness than the Baltimore Ravens. And leading the way is one of the toughest players in the NFL.
Steve Smith, Sr. is in the 16th season of a career that could very possibly earn him a place in Canton.
Smith has twice come back from career-threatening injuries, including an Achilles injury in 2015, in what was supposed to be his final season of his career. But instead of retiring, Smith decided to come back for a third season with the Ravens.
This year, fully healthy, Smith has 54 catches for 589 yards and three touchdowns for a Ravens team that is tied with the Steelers at 7-5 atop the AFC North.
What is it about Steve Smith, now 37, that makes him such a unique and still-productive receiver?
“What a tremendous competitor. This guy is tough. He plays extremely quick,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “You wouldn’t really think that he has been in the league as long as he has but he out-competes his opponents every play. He’s just got a drive about him that is definitely, I would say a little bit of an old school mentality that just he’s not going to be out-worked, he’s not going to be out-hustled, he’s not going to be out-competed by anybody else on the field. He’s a tough guy. He plays with great strength and they do a good job of utilizing him.”
This is the same Steve Smith that, while playing for Carolina, caught four passes for 80 yards and a touchdown and returned a kick 30 yards against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII. This is also the same Smith who made headlines during training camp in 2008 when he was involved in an altercation with teammate Ken Lucas. Smith broke Lucas’ nose during the fight and was later sent home for the remainder of the day after reportedly apologizing.
He was given a two-game suspension by the team. Smith then suffered a severe concussion during the 2008 preseason opener against the Colts, where Smith was hit in the head when catching a pass. He continued to play that game, but did not travel with the team to their next game against the Eagles. After returning from suspension and scoring his first touchdown of the 2008 season, Smith presented the ball to Lucas on the sideline. His career is so remarkable that it was documented in the NFL Films “A Football Life” this season.
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|12.06.16 at 7:50 pm ET|
Five things you have to know about Ravens (7-5), who will travel to meet the Patriots (10-2) in a key AFC clash Monday night in Foxboro.
They’re OK at throwing the ball. Veteran quarterback Joe Flacco (321-for-497, 65 percent, 3,258 yards, 15 TDs, 11 INTs) leads a better-than-average passing attack that is currently 12th in the league (258 yards per game). Flacco does a nice job spreading things around in the passing game — six different offensive skill position players have 20 catches or more on the season, led by tight end Dennis Pitta (61 catches, 87 targets, 529 yards, 2 TDs), wide receiver Mike Wallace (57 catches, 92 targets, 851 yards, 4 TDs) and the ageless Steve Smith (54 catches, 76 targets, 589 yards, 3 TDs). The depth of the Baltimore passing game will be a good test for a New England secondary that has been tweaked a bit over the last few months.
They will occasionally have issues when it comes to pass defense. The Ravens are seventh in the league in passing yards allowed, having yielded an average of 222.3 yards per game. (Kirk Cousins, Eli Manning, Dak Prescott and Andy Dalton all had 250 or more passing yards against Baltimore.) The defense is pretty good when it comes to takeaways, as the Ravens have 14 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries. (The 22 takeaways are tied for fourth in the league.) Safety Eric Weddle and linebacker C.J. Mosley are tied for the team lead with three interceptions each, while Terrell Suggs is tops on the team with eight sacks. One more note: former New England defensive coordinator Dean Pees has been Baltimore’s DC since 2012. In four career games vs. Pees’ Baltimore defenses, quarterback Tom Brady is 2-2, and has gone 104-for-171 (61 percent) for 1,194 yards, with five touchdowns and three interceptions. Not bad, but not great either. With Baltimore’s run defense so stout and Rob Gronkowski on the shelf, Monday will be a sizable challenge for Brady and the Patriots’ passing game.
They’re really good at stopping the run. From a statistical standpoint, this is the best run defense the Patriots will face all season. The Ravens allow a paltry 73.8 rushing yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry, both of which are the best total in the league. In nine of the 12 games they’ve played, they’ve held opponents to 65 yards or less on the ground. Only two backs (Matt Forte and Isaiah Crowell) have hit the 100-yard mark all year against them. Bottom line? Don’t look for the Patriots to run the ball a lot on Monday.
As good as they are at stopping the run, they struggle to run the ball as a team. If there’s a weakness to the Ravens, it’s probably their lack of a ground game. Baltimore averages 89.7 rushing yards per game, 28th in the league, while the 3.7 yards per carry is good for 26th overall. Terrance West (163 carries, 650 yards, 5 TDs) is the closest thing they have to a lead back, while Kenneth Dixon (46 carries, 206 yards, 18 catches, 100 yards) is their answer as a third-down/change-up guy. While the Ravens occasionally been able to get the running game cranked up — they had 130 yards in an October loss to the Raiders — they’re pretty much a one-dimensional offense.
Kicker Justin Tucker is one of the best in the league. Tucker is the only regular kicker in the league who has been perfect when it comes to field goal attempts this season; the Texas product is 28-for-28 from the field (including 8-for-8 from 50-plus) and 20-for-20 on extra points. Punter Sam Koch is pretty good as well, as his 46 yards per punt average is 12th in the league and his 39.4 net is 21st. The Ravens have used a few different returners, but right now, veteran Devin Hester appears to be getting the majority of reps at both spots. Hester gas 24 punt returns for an average of 7 yards per chance and 17 kick returns for an average of 25.1 yards per opportunity. Good numbers, but nowhere near as impactful as he was earlier in his career. They do not have a return for touchdown, but yielded a punt return for a touchdown earlier in the season.
|12.06.16 at 2:18 pm ET|
On Sunday against the Rams, the Patriots were hit with eight penalties for 46 yards, not including the calls that were declined or offset. Through 12 games this year, the Patriots have been whistled for 74 penalties (fifth fewest in the league) and 657 penalty yards (11th fewest in the league). Here’s a breakdown of the flags that have gone against New England after 12 regular-season games:
|12.06.16 at 11:48 am ET|
With the stretch drive looming, the AFC playoff picture is starting to come into sharper focus. Here’s a snapshot of the current conference playoff chase, with a look at the top eight teams in the conference, their record, where they stand currently in the race for the postseason and their remaining schedule. It’s also worth checking out the playoff odds for each team, which are updated every week at Football Outsiders.
1. Raiders (10-2): Remaining opponents: at Chiefs (9-3), at Chargers (5-7), vs. Colts (6-6), at Broncos (8-4) — Opponents record — 28-20 (.583 winning percentage)
And so, here we all are in early December, looking at Oakland as the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Just like we all thought, right? The Raiders, who moved ahead of the Patriots Sunday because of the fact they have the best record in common games, deserve plenty of credit for their body of work to this point. If they can survive the remaining divisional gauntlet, you can’t say Oakland didn’t earn home field advantage.
2. Patriots (10-2): Remaining opponents: vs. Ravens (7-5), at Broncos (8-4), vs. Jets (3-9), at Dolphins (7-5) — Opponents record — 25-23 (.521)
New England’s next two weeks are huge. If the Patriots can beat Baltimore at home and Denver on the road, they’ll be in fine shape heading into the final two weeks. If both New England and Oakland each hold serve over the next three games, the Patriots could be in the rare situation of rooting for the Broncos to beat the Raiders in the regular season finale if they want to get home field. Strange days, indeed.
3. Ravens (7-5): Remaining opponents: at Patriots (10-2), vs. Eagles (5-7), at Steelers (7-5), at Bengals (4-7-1) — Opponents record —26-21-1 (.541)
Baltimore is still in the driver’s seat in the AFC North, but needs to keep winning to stay ahead of the Steelers, who have such a pillowy-soft schedule the rest of the way the guys at Sleep Number should look into using it as a template.
4. Texans (6-6): Remaining opponents: at Colts (6-6), vs. Jags (2-10), vs. Bengals (4-7-1), vs. Titans (6-6) — Opponents record — 18-29-1 (.375)
One of two things is going to happen in the AFC South: Either the Texans will lose a wild-card game, or the Titans will overcome Houston and give pretty much every football fan outside of the greater Houston area the story we all want.
5. Chiefs (9-3): Remaining opponents: vs. Raiders (10-2), vs. Titans (6-6), vs. Broncos (8-4), at Chargers (5-7) — Opponents record —29-19 (.604)
Let’s end the formalities and throw all three AFC West playoff contenders into the octagon now. The two teams that come out warm the right to advance to the playoffs. Thursday’s game between Kansas City and Oakland should be a lot of fun.
6. Broncos (8-4): Remaining opponents: at Titans (6-6), vs. Patriots (10-2), at Chiefs (9-3), vs. Raiders (10-2) — Opponents record — 35-13 (.729)
Denver has the toughest road the rest of the way, but a pair of divisional games over the last two weeks of the season will go a long way toward determining what happens to them.
7. Dolphins (7-5): Remaining opponents: vs. Cardinals (5-6-1), at Jets (3-9), at Bills (6-6), vs. Patriots (10-2) — Opponents record — 24-23-1 (.502)
A big loss this past weekend to the Ravens snapped Miami’s six-game winning streak. If they can take care of business the next two weeks against lesser opponents, the Dolphins could still be in position for that last wild-card spot heading into the regular-season finale against New England.
8. Steelers (7-5): Remaining opponents: at Bills (6-6), at Bengals (4-7-1), vs. Ravens (7-5), vs. Browns (0-12) — Opponents record — 17-30-1 (.354)
Three winnable games over the last month of the season for Pittsburgh means the AFC North chase isn’t over quite yet.
|12.06.16 at 11:41 am ET|
It could be a hat and t-shirt game Monday for the Patriots.
New England can clinch the AFC East Monday for the eighth straight year and 13th time in the last 15 years if a series of events take place:
—A New England win and Miami loss or tie.
—A New England tie and Miami loss.
In addition, New England can clinch a first-round bye in the AFC with the following:
—A New England win and Miami loss or tie plus a Pittsburgh loss or tie.
|12.06.16 at 10:59 am ET|
Welcome to the waiver wire, everybody, and props to all those who just qualified for the postseason. It’s Week 14, and in the vast majority of leagues that means half of the teams now are toast. So, while most waiver wires have been picked pretty clean over the last 13 weeks, there will be fewer GMs to compete with when making bids or claims this week. There are some relative values out there in case you have a need or if you want to bolster your bench a bit. The quarterback market is pretty light, but most of you probably are in good shape there. Based on ownership rates, Joe Flacco is the guy to add this week for depth or if you need a Week 14 option. The pickings at the other positions are a little better, as you will see. The plum of this week’s crop probably is Ladarius Green, who busted out against the Giants in Week 13.
As always, I will be working through game film, and I will add a few new names when I post the expanded waiver wire over at Rotobahn on Tuesday afternoon, along with another waiver wire podcast. The pod is a good quick listen, and I will tweet a link to it on as soon as it’s posted. Go here to follow @Rotobahn on Twitter.
If you have tough lineup decisions this week, look for my starts and sits article, which will be posted on WEEI this Friday as always. My lineup rankings, posted at Rotobahn, will go up on Thursday and will have a final update on Saturday.
Good luck to all this week!
The ownership rates listed for each player were sourced from Yahoo!
Joe Flacco, Ravens, 23 percent
He’s a stable weekly option who happens to be hot right now. The Ravens play a solid playoff schedule, and Flacco is a decent-to-good play each week going forward. Stable. Solid. Decent. I know it’s not exciting, but he can keep you competitive.
Tyrod Taylor, Bills, 63 percent
Taylor has nice playoff matchups, and he has Sammy Watkins back, too. Watkins gives him an actual weapon defenses must respect. Taylor can start for you over the next three weeks, though his play has been erratic the last few games. The bottom line is that he is a dynamic running threat and that gives him a decent weekly floor. The schedule and Watkins’ return give him some ceiling to go with it.
Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins, 26 percent
He’s not an option I like this week, but you can consider adding him for his matchup in Week 15 when the Dolphins travel to play the Jets. The Jets are barely playing football right now and look ready to fold up like a cheap tent. They made Dwayne Allen look like Kellen Winslow Sr. on Monday night.
|12.06.16 at 10:31 am ET|
Sunday’s 26-10 win over the Rams was a milestone win for Tom Brady, as it was win No. 201, which allowed Brady to pass Peyton Manning for the most all-time among NFL quarterbacks.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft presented him the game ball afterwards in the locker room and Brady said many of his friends and former teammates reached out to him following the game.
On Westwood One’s pregame show for Monday Night Football, Jim Gray asked Brady if a few high profile people reached out to him, including Roger Goodell.
“I got that question earlier today [on Kirk & Callahan] and no, but I wouldn’t expect that anyway, so that’s fine,” Brady said. “He probably has plenty of other important things as well.”
What about President Barack Obama?
“No, I didn’t [hear from him],” Brady said. “But that is OK. He has plenty of other things to worry about that are far more important than this.”
President-elect Donald Trump?
“Nope,” Brady said. “I’m sure he has plenty of other things to worry about as well.”
The Patriots quarterback was also asked what setting the record meant to him, but he didn’t want to discuss it much and defected the praise.
Gray asked Brady why he’s so hesitant to reflect on what he’s accomplished.
“I think I am still on a journey,” Brady said. “I never thought about the wins I would have, or Super Bowls. I just always tried to do the best I could do. The motivation I have is trying to be the best that I can be every day for as long as I choose to keep playing. My motivations are different. Certainly, I am proud of everything that has been accomplished over the course of my career and I am proud of what my team has been able to accomplish, but I also feel there is a lot more to accomplish.
“I’m still kind of walking that path and maybe one day I will sit back and think about all these incredible things that have happened, but right now is not the time.”
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