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Patriots Potential Playoff Opponents: Baltimore Ravens

12.26.11 at 4:15 pm ET
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Ray Rice is the offensive centerpiece for the Ravens. (AP)

With the Patriots securely in the postseason, it’s time to start sizing up their possible postseason opponents. This is the first in a weeklong series of features on the rest of the AFC playoff teams. Today, we open with a look at the Baltimore Ravens:

The skinny: Baltimore, which enters the final week of the regular season at 11-4, has clinched a playoff spot and is currently the No. 2 seed behind New England. Despite the successes the Ravens have had this year, they remains the AFC’s ultimate trick-or-treat franchise: The Ravens have beaten several good teams — they’ve swept Pittsburgh, and posted solid wins over San Francisco, Houston, the New York Jets and Cincinnati. Meanwhile, they’ve submitted some of the worst performances in the league this season, having lost to Tennessee, Jacksonville, Seattle and San Diego, four teams who will likely miss out on the playoffs. Bottom line? No one is sure what to expect from this Baltimore team in the postseason.

Offense: The Ravens certainly don’t possess a world-class offense, but could still be called better than average. Baltimore relies on Ray Rice to grind out yardage in the running game, and the Rutgers product has 1,173 yards on 267 carries for a 4.4 yards per carry average and 10 touchdowns this season. When Joe Flacco (297-for-523 for 3,480 yards, 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions) throws the ball, he looks for Rice out of the backfield (74 catches, 696 yards). When he does look downfield, it’s usually wide receiver Anquan Boldin (57 catches, 887 yards, 3 TDs) or tight end Ed Dickson (53 catches, 508 yards, five TDs).

Defense: More often than not, Baltimore wins because if its defense. The combination of defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs and safety Ed Reed has been one of the best in the league the last few seasons, and this year is no exception. The Ravens can get after the passer with the best of them (their 47 sacks are second-best in the league to Philadelphia’s 49), and they rank in the top five virtually every major defensive category, including fewest points per game allowed (16.7 heading into the final week of the regular season).

Why the Patriots should be afraid: This is the same team that knocked them out of the postseason in 2009, and is always a tough matchup for New England. A big, mean, physical group who can put pressure on a quarterback consistently with a minimum amount of rushers always gives the Patriots a problem. In addition, Rice is a top five back who has had three 100-plus yard performances over the last six weeks.

Why the Patriots shouldn’t be afraid: The Ravens have been up-and-down all season, and if the Patriots catch them on one of those down days, well, you have to feel good about their chances. In addition, Lewis has been slowed by a toe injury, while Flacco has looked very ordinary at times this season, resulting in an over-reliance on Rice. And like most other teams in the league, if New England goes to the spread (as it did on Saturday against Miami), it appears Baltimore wouldn’t have many answers for the Gronkowski/Hernandez/Welker/Branch combination of pass catchers.

One guy to look out for: While there are plenty of other big names on the Baltimore defense, cornerback Lardarius Webb, in his first full year as a starter for the Ravens, leads the team in interceptions with five. A 5-foot-10, 182-pounder out of Nicholls State, the 26-year-old Webb has been a starter for 14 of the Ravens’ 15 games this season. According to Pro Football Focus, he grades out as Baltimore’s best defender in pass coverage with a +9.1. PFF says that he’s been thrown at 80 times this season, and has nine passes defensed, while 47 balls have been completed for 570 yards. However, he is one of two starting cornerbacks in the league not to have allowed a touchdown reception this season.

Potential playoff villain: Bernard Pollard. Yep, the same guy who went crashing into Tom Brady’s knee as a member of the Chiefs in the 2008 season opener. Pollard has been a starting safety for the Ravens since Week 4, and has become an important part of their defense. He’s fourth on the team with 70 tackles (51 solo) and two sacks.

Read More: Anquan Boldin, Bernard Pollard, Ed Dickson, Ed Reed Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
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