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Ten things you have to know about Patriots-Ravens

01.19.13 at 2:47 pm ET
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Here’€™s everything you need to know about Sunday’€™s Patriots-Ravens game:

Our three favorite matchups on the night:

1. Linebacker Brandon Spikes and defensive lineman Vince Wilfork against running back Ray Rice: It’€™s No. 1 on our list almost every week for a reason — more often than not, the Patriots have won the battle up front, and when it comes to stopping the run, Spikes and Wilfork are key. Rice had a tremendous night against New England the first time they met this year — he was the only running back to break the century mark against the Patriots this season, as he had 20 carries for 101 yards and a touchdown on the ground (and tore it up through the air as well, finishing with five catches for 49 yards). Meanwhile, the Ravens are almost singularly focused on trying to stop Wilfork this week, and for good reason, as he is in the midst of one of the finest streaks of a thoroughly impressive career. Both he and Spikes will have the primary responsibilities of trying to slow down Rice.

2. Defensive back Aqib Talib against wide receiver Torrey Smith: The premier matchup on the outside. The addition of Talib has allowed the Patriots to do some more things defensively, including more man coverage (as opposed to keeping cornerbacks on one side or another, as they have preferred to do in the past). It’€™s also allowed the Patriots to move some defenders around where they can play to their strengths, like Devin McCourty at safety and Kyle Arrington in the slot. As a result, Talib has found himself in one-on-one situations this season with the opposing teams’€™ best receiver — Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne and the like. With Anquan Boldin more of a slot presence, look for Talib and Smith to be one-on-one outside. Smith has become one of the best deep threats in the league — he’€™s not necessarily an elite pass catcher in the mold of Wayne or Johnson (he had 49 receptions for 855 yards and eight touchdowns in the regular season), but his faster than Fios speed makes him exceptionally dangerous. (His 17.4 yards per catch in the regular season was fourth-best in the league.)

3. The Patriots running backs against the Baltimore defense: The combination of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden have done am excellent job bringing true balance to the New England offense this season, but were stymied the first time around against the Ravens — the Patriots managed just 77 rushing yards as a team that September evening. They will obviously be terrifically important this time around when it comes to establishing a ground game, but the backs — particularly Vereen and Woodhead, the latter of whom is expected to play after suffering a thumb injury last week against the Texans — will also be important in the passing game. The Patriots were able to get Vereen matched up on a linebacker on a handful of occasions in the passing game, and made some nice gains as a result. Meanwhile, Woodhead’€™s presence as a pass catcher is well-detailed, as he remains the first New England running back since Kevin Faulk in 2008 to finish a season with at least 40 catches and 40 carries. With the Baltimore linebackers having major issues in coverage this season, that appears to be a winnable matchup for the New England offense.

(One more matchup: linebacker/edge rusher Rob Ninkovich against right tackle Michael Oher: The Patriots have flipped their outside pass rushers on several occasions this year, and this might be one of those times where they can exploit probably the weakest overall link in Baltimore’€™s offensive line. Oher was flipped from left tackle to right late in the season to make room for Bryant McKinnie, but has allowed 10 sacks and 29 quarterback hurries on the season, tops on the team — that includes four quarterback hurries and a hit the first time these two teams played back in September. Ninkovich continues to make big plays on a consistent basis for the New England defense, including an interception last week against the Texans, and could find himself in another big spot this week against the Ravens.)

4. Under the radar opponent who Patriots’€™ fans need to know: As under-the-radar as a Pro Bowler can be, Jacoby Jones is a guy who can mess things up in a real hurry for the Patriots. A peerless kick returner — he led the league in average kick returns during the regular season at 30.7 yards per return — he must have been salivating at the sight of the New England kick coverage unit last week against the Texans and Daniel Manning. In their divisional playoff win, the Patriots yielded three kick returns of 30-plus yards to Manning, including a 94-yarder. That needs to be fixed if New England is going to win this game. (The strange thing? The Patriots were one of the best teams in the league in the regular season when it came to kick coverage — New England was third-best in the NFL, allowing an average of 20.5 per kick return.)

5. By the numbers (tie, both courtesy of Nuggetpalooza) One: From 2010-2012, the Patriots are a combined +70 in turnover margin in the regular season, by far the best in the league in that span (Packers +41, 49ers +36). But during that same span in the postseason (five games), New England has a minus-four turnover margin, tied with the Saints for the worst in the league in that span. Baltimore’€™s +10 is the best postseason turnover margin over the last three seasons. Two: While Joe Flacco and the Ravens never threw a pick on a long ball (a pass play of 20-plus yards) during the season, the Patriots’€™ pass defense picked off a league high eight such passes out of 78 opponent attempts (a league high).

6. Quote from an opposing scout regarding this Sunday: ‘€œThis week against the Ravens, the Patriots should use the multiple attack that they used last week, for several reasons. They have several personnel matchup advantages against the Baltimore defense. As we saw last week, Shane Vereen, out of backfield as a receiver is a winnable matchup. In addition, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd spread out the defense individually and as a group, and will also make things tougher for a Ravens’€™ secondary that has matchup problems. Adding Stevan Ridley and potential of the run makes it even harder for Baltimore to prepare for, especially when several of the pieces are in packages together and New England runs the hurry-up, no-huddle offense.’€ — For more of the scout’€™s breakdown CLICK HERE.

7. Patriots fans should be worried about’€¦.. Flacco’€™s ability to go deep. The New England pass defense is far better than it was when the two teams met in September, but so is the Baltimore passing game. Boldin was ninth in the league with 17 receptions of 20 or more yards, while Smith had 12 catches of 20 yards or more. That big-play capability can change a game quickly — the Patriots have to be mindful of Flacco’€™s arm strength. (The phrase ‘€œGet The [Expletive] Back’€ that’€™s tattooed on every New England safety’€™s psyche will be put to the test this week.)

8. Ravens fans should be worried about’€¦. the Patriots going no-huddle. New England has effectively utilized the no-huddle for most of the last two seasons, and Tom Brady and the rest of the offense has really leaned on it when it comes to the Ravens. In all, the last five times the Patriots have played Baltimore (dating back to the 2009 season), the New England offense has run 108 of its 346 plays in the no-huddle, a rate of 31 percent — slightly higher than its usual average. Against a weary defense that endured a double-overtime matchup in the thin air of Denver last week, it should be an important part of what the Patriots do this weekend against the Ravens.

9. One more thing: Brandon Lloyd. While it wasn’€™t his best game statistically, Lloyd’€™s finest performance of the season came in the September loss to the Ravens. Watching Lloyd and Tom Brady dissect the Baltimore pass defense in September was impressive, particularly a pitch-and-catch sequence (mostly along the sidelines at the expense of Ravens cornerback Cary Williams) that accounted for 30 of the 80 yards on a third-quarter scoring drive that put the Patriots up 27-21. Lloyd ended that evening with nine catches (on 12 targets) for 108 yards. Again, it was the second-best performance of the season for Lloyd — he busted out for 10 catches on 16 targets for 190 yards in a December loss to the Niners — but those numbers from September against the Ravens could certainly portend good things for Lloyd when it comes to this weekend.

10. Prediction:

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