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Five things you have to know about the Ravens

12.17.13 at 7:15 pm ET
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The Patriots will try to close out the AFC East and put a major dent in the playoff hopes of the Ravens when they travel to Baltimore for a Sunday afternoon contest. Here are five things you have to know about the Ravens.

1. They almost always do a really good job at defending Tom Brady.

Old warhorses like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are no longer around, but the Ravens remain are as stout as they come defensively. There are some questions about their ability to close defensively — they’€™ve allowed 96 points in the fourth quarter this season, the most of any AFC team still in the playoff chase — but there’€™s still a lot to like about what they’€™re doing. They’€™re in the top 10 when it comes to total defense (334 yards per game allowed, ninth-best in the league), run defense (102.4 rush yards per game allowed, seventh-best in the league) and points per game allowed (19.8 per game, seventh-best in the league). They are one team that consistently makes things difficult for Brady, who is 2-3 against them in his last five games. Over the course of his career, the quarterback averages 57 percent when it comes to his completion rate, and has a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 8-10 in his career against Baltimore. (According to Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, the Ravens have held Brady under 6.8 YPA in six of eight career meetings.) With New England facing a dicey situation when it comes to offensive line depth, particular at tackle, the pressure off the edges will be a concern — old friend Terrell Suggs (9 sacks) figures to have something to say about this one before the week is done, and Elvis Dumervil (9.5 sacks) should also be a handful for the Patriots offensive line.

2. They have almost as much experience playing close games this season as the Patriots.

When the Patriots and Ravens meet Sunday, chances are good that it’€™ll be a close game. Eleven of the 14 games New England has played this year have been decided by seven points or less, while Baltimore has played in 10 games decided by seven points or less. The Ravens have gone 5-5 in their games decided by a touchdown or less, while the Patriots are 7-4. Baltimore has won their last three games by a total of seven points, which includes Monday’€™s win over the Lions, a contest that wasn’€™t decided until Justin Tucker connected on his sixth field goal of the night, a 61-yarder than lifted the Ravens to an 18-16 win. All that comes against a backdrop of almost nothing but close games between these two teams — since 2004, five of the eight games between Patriots and Ravens have been decided by six points or less. Expect another close one come Sunday afternoon.

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Read More: Ed Reed, Jacoby Jones, joe flacco, Justin Tucker

Rob Gronkowski makes rounds, helps hand out toys dressed as elf

12.17.13 at 3:40 pm ET
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Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is scheduled for surgery with Dr. James Andrews in a couple of weeks, but that’s not slowing him down. He was spotted the other day at a Whole Foods in Rhode Island doing some grocery shopping, and in this video posted to the Instagram account of teammate Stevan Ridley Tuesday, he’s seen helping hand out Christmas presents to kids at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Read More: Rob Gronkowski, Stevan Ridley,

Following the flags: Tracking Patriots penalties for 2013 season

12.17.13 at 3:01 pm ET
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Through 14 games, the Patriots have been flagged for 58 penalties (lowest in the league) for a total of 536 yards (30th in the league). Here’€™s a breakdown of the calls that have gone against the Patriots, not including penalties that were declined or offset:’€¨’€¨Most penalized players, listed by total flags and with total yardage lost:

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Bill Belichick: Executing in key situations is ‘absolutely the difference’ in finding success

12.17.13 at 2:45 pm ET
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When the Patriots and Ravens meet Sunday, chances are good that it’ll be a close game.

Eleven of the 14 games New England has played this year have been decided by seven points or less, while Baltimore has played in 10 games decided by seven points or less. On Tuesday, Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked about the traits needed to succeed in close games.

“Make the plays in the critical situations at the end of the game they need to make to win. That’€™s what it comes down to. That’€™s what this league is,” he said on a conference call with reporters. “You play for 57, 58, 59 minutes, and the game’€™s still not decided, and it hinges on the plays from there on out. It could be one play, it could be a series. It could be a kick or a return, fumbled punt, a pass, an interception, a sack, a short-yardage or goal line play, a stop ‘€“ it could be any one of a million situations.

“Being able to execute those plays in those critical situations is going to determine the result of the game. Being able to do those things as a team, along with some other things ‘€“ substitution, clock management, and all those other things as well, getting out of bounds, staying in bounds and making good decisions ‘€“ in the end, it comes down to execution in those critical situations [which] is absolutely the difference. That’€™s the NFL.”

The Ravens have gone 5-5 in their games decided by a touchdown or less, while the Patriots are 7-4. However, Baltimore has won their last three games by a total of seven points, which includes Monday’s win over the Lions, a contest that wasn’t decided until Justin Tucker connected on his sixth field goal of the night, a 61-yarder than lifted the Ravens to an 18-16 win.

Belichick is impressed with Tucker, who has an ability to extend the range for the Ravens on a regular basis.

“I think they’€™ve always been a team that wants the points and has a lot of confidence in their defense [that] they’€™re not going to give up many,” Belichick said. “The running the ball there at the end of the game to protect the field goal was something that they’€™ve done in the past. They did that against us in the AFC Championship Game a couple years ago, when they tried to run a trap up the middle, I think Vince [Wilfork] tackled him for a loss, knocked them out of field goal range and then they went for it on fourth down. I think that’€™s a style of play that they have and a strategy they’€™ve used in the past quite a bit, if that’€™s kind of what you’€™re referring to there.”

Here are some more highlights of his Q&A with the media Tuesday afternoon:

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Read More: Bill Belichick,

Josh McDaniels expects another ‘physical’ encounter with Dean Pees, Terrell Suggs and the Ravens

12.17.13 at 2:31 pm ET
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Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Dannell Ellerbe may be gone but Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is expecting another brutally tough and physical game against the Ravens defense this Sunday in Baltimore.

Gone are Lewis, Reed and Ellerbe. They have been replaced by the likes of linebackers Daryl Smith and Elvis Dumervil and safety Matt Elam.

Since giving up 49 points on seven touchdown passes from Peyton Manning on opening night, the Ravens defense has slowly but surely been working its way back into Super Bowl form. They haven’t given up more than 26 points in a game since while holding their opponent to less than 20 points seven times.

In other words, McDaniels, Tom Brady and the short-handed Patriots more than have their work cut out Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

“[There are] a few new faces, but really the same talented defense,” McDaniels said, referring of course to names like nose tackle Haloti Ngata, defensive backs Jimmy Smith and Ladarius Webb and of course, linebacker Terrell Suggs. “I think they are really a physical group. They have really good, solid players at every level of the defense. They don’€™t give up many big plays. [They’€™re] difficult to run it on; pretty stingy in the run game.

“They do a great job at situational football ‘€“ they are one of the best teams in the league on third downs, I think they are the best team in the league in red area defense. We certainly have a big challenge in front of us in terms of playing there; it is always a difficult place to play. They are well coached, as always, and they do a good job of changing up their scheme from one week to the next of giving you some different looks that maybe you haven’€™t practiced against. So, we’€™re going to have to have a great week of preparation for them. It’€™s always a great challenge to play Baltimore in Baltimore.”

McDaniels was asked if Dean Pees has changed his defensive style since McDaniels worked with him in the late 2000s in New England.

“With Dean, Dean is a great coach,” McDaniels said. “I was very fortunate to have a chance to work with him for a couple of years here, and then have had many opportunities to coach against him. His defenses are always extremely well prepared. He is very sound, and they don’€™t give up a lot of big plays. He is an aggressive play caller. They will come after you in critical situations and make you beat pressure, which I know means he has a lot of confidence in his defense and his scheme, his players. They are rarely out of position. You rarely see any kind of communication issues with them, which just speaks volumes about the way they are coached and the way they prepare. It will be a great challenge for us. I have a ton of respect for Dean. He has done an incredible job with their defense since he has taken over, and I know we are going to have our hands full on Sunday.

The Ravens have won four straight and are just a game behind the Bengals in the AFC North. They are the hottest team in the AFC after Justin Tucker’s 61-yard field goal lifted them to an 18-16 win Monday night in Detroit.

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Read More: Baltimore Ravens, Josh McDaniels, New England Patriots, nfl

Pressure points: Which New England defenders have done best job getting after QB in 2013?

12.17.13 at 1:14 pm ET
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Every week over the course of the 2013 season, we’€™ll provide a look at the Patriots pass rush numbers. While sacks can be overrated, when evaluated as part of a bigger picture that includes quarterback hits and quarterback pressures (the latter courtesy of Pro Football Focus), it should provide a good picture as to which defenders are consistently able to get after the quarterback. Through 14 games, the Patriots have 40 sacks (tied for ninth in the league), 78 quarterback hits and 151 quarterback hurries. Based on the official NFL game books and PFF, here’€™s a quick look at some pass-rush numbers for the Patriots to this point in the 2013 season:

Quarterback sacks
DL Chandler Jones: 11.5 (73.5 yards)
DE Rob Ninkovich: 6 (29 yards)
DL Chris Jones: 5 (32 yards)
DL Tommy Kelly: 2.5 (14.5 yards)
LB Dane Fletcher: 2 (19 yards)
CB Logan Ryan: 2 (18 yards)
DL Joe Vellano: 2 (18 yards)
DE Michael Buchanan: 2 (15 yards)
LB Jerod Mayo: 1.5 (5 yards)
CB Kyle Arrington: 1 (4 yards)
LB Dont’€™a Hightower: 1 (9 yards)
DL Isaac Sopoaga: 1 (8 yards)
DE Andre Carter: 1 (6 yards)
Team sacks: 1 (8 yards)
DL Sealver Siliga: 1 (6 yards)

‘€¨’€¨Quarterback hits (per NFL game books)
DE Chandler Jones: 21
DE Rob Ninkovich: 15
DL Chris Jones: 7
DL Tommy Kelly: 6
DE Michael Buchanan: 5
DE Andre Carter: 5
DL Joe Vellano: 4
LB Dont’€™a Hightower: 4
LB: Dane Fletcher: 3
LB Jerod Mayo: 2
DL Vince Wilfork: 1
DE Jake Bequette: 1
CB Logan Ryan: 1
S Steve Gregory: 1
DL Issac Sopoaga: 1
LB Jamie Collins: 1
CB Kyle Arrington: 1
DL Sealver Siliga: 1

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Conn. woman with ties to Aaron Hernandez dies

12.17.13 at 1:01 pm ET
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A 27-year-old Connecticut woman with connections to accused murderer and former Patriot Aaron Hernandez died Monday, six months after surviving a car crash that killed another Hernandez associate.

Tabitha Perry, who was interviewed by Massachusetts law enforcement about the June 17 shooting death of Odin Lloyd, was visiting a friend in Southington, Conn., on Monday night, according to a report in the Hartford Courant. She was found unconscious and not breathing when police responded to a 911 call. Toxicology results are pending.

On June 30, Perry was injured when Thaddeus Singleton III lost control of his car and flew 100 feet through the air before crashing into the side of Farmington Country Club. Singleton, who had a child with Perry, was married to Tanya Singleton, a cousin of Hernandez who is facing an accessory charge in Lloyd’s death.

Thadeus Singleton was described by police as the “nexus” of Hernandez’s Bristol network, and the individual who connected Hernandez to his alleged accomplices in Lloyd’s death, Ernest Wallace and Carlos Ortiz.

The Singletons lived at a home in Bristol owned by Hernandez’s uncle, and it has been searched by police multiple times. Police seized a car from the garage of the home that matched the description of the vehicle involved in the 2012 drive-by shooting that killed two men in downtown Boston.

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Tabitha Perry,

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