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Ten things you have to know about Patriots-Ravens

12.21.13 at 7:00 am ET
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Here’€™s everything you need to know about Sunday’€™s Patriots-Ravens game:

Our three favorite matchups on the afternoon:

1. Quarterback Tom Brady against defensive coordinator Dean Pees: These two know each other pretty well — Pees was in New England for six seasons, working first as the linebackers coach and then as the defensive coordinator — and that’€™s shown through when Brady has met the Ravens. Baltimore is the only team that has consistently given him trouble over the years, and that’€™s especially true over the last few seasons. In each of the last four seasons (including playoffs), Brady’€™s worst single-game passer rating came against Baltimore. (For a complete breakdown of Brady’€™s stats against the Ravens, check out my story here, and for more on the Brady-Pees relationship, check out my story here.) On the flip side, Brady enters the game on an undeniable roll. According to ESPN Stats & Info, over Brady’€™s first eight games, he was completing 55.7 percent of his passes, averaging 228 passing yards per game and had a 9:6 touchdown:interception ratio. Over his last six games, he’€™s completing passes at a 66.8 percent clip, averaging 370.8 passing yards per game and finishing with a 14:4 touchdown:interception ratio.

2. Tackles Marcus Cannon, Nate Solder and (possibly) Logan Mankins against edge rushers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil: The Ravens generate the majority of their pressure off the edge with Suggs and Dumervil — the two have a combined 18.5 sacks, and have a track record when it comes to making life miserable for quarterbacks and offensive linemen. Meanwhile, the Patriots are struggling at tackle, with Cannon (and occasionally Will Svitek) working in place of Sebastian Vollmer on the right side. On the left, Solder suffered his second concussion in as many weeks against the Dolphins, and was replaced against Miami with Mankins. Solder is questionable going into this game, but the thought of the Patriots going with backup tackles against the Dumervil/Suggs combo is troubling, to say the least. Expect lots of help from tight ends like Michael Hoomanwanui, Matthew Mulligan and (potentially) D.J. Williams. In addition, it’€™s worth reiterating that Brady won’€™t be spending too much time in the pocket, using seven-step drops to try and go deep downfield. Instead, expect the quarterback to be getting the ball out as fast as possible to try and negate the pass rush.

3. Cornerback Aqib Talib against wide receiver Torrey Smith: Talib has been slowed a little as of late — it’€™s debatable his much is due to matchup issues and how much is because of the hip issues — but he figures to spend a lot of time going up against Smith, the most complete receiver on the Ravens roster. Smith (a team-leading 59 catches, 1,032 yards, four touchdowns, as well as 17.5 yards per catch) doesn’€™t have the elite straight-line speed of Jacoby Jones, but is capable of beating you on a number of levels. A smart and talented competitor, he will present a challenge for Talib, who leads New England with four picks and 13 passes defensed. (One thing worth considering — while Talib and Smith will spend lots of time locked in a one-on-one matchup Sunday, there also could be situations where the corner finds himself opposite Dennis Pitta. The tight end has returned to the lineup for the Ravens, and while he lacks the offensive oomph he had at the end of last season, he still remains a threat for the Baltimore passing game.)

4. Under the radar opponent who Patriots’€™ fans need to know: Darryl Smith has done an excellent job stepping into the middle linebacker role for the Ravens this season, taking over the responsibilities previously held by Ray Lewis. The ex-Jaguar has been impressive in just about every aspect of his game — he has 4.5 sacks this year — but has been excellent when it comes to working in coverage. He has three interceptions and 17 passes defended in 13 games — the passes defensed set a new single-season record for a Ravens linebacker (Lewis held the previous record with 13). The 6-foot-2, 248-pounder could see some time matched up against New England’€™s tight ends like Hoomanawnaui or running backs like Shane Vereen.

5. By the numbers, per STATS: The Pats have played an NFL-high 11 games this season that were decided by 7 points or fewer, winning seven of them. Baltimore is tied for second, with 10 such games (5-5) — in fact, 10 of the Ravens’€™ last 11 games have had a final margin of six points or fewer.

6. Quote of note: ‘€œ[T]here would be no better feeling than us beating them Sunday and . . . we eliminate their season right there. For me and for a lot of my teammates, there’€™d be no better feeling.’€ — Patriots safety Devin McCourty, speaking with CSN New England about this week’€™s game.

7. Patriots fans should be worried about’€¦.. the Ravens offense finding a way to consistently reach the end zone. Sounds odd, I know, but the Baltimore offense has struggled as of late to score touchdowns. Justin Tucker delivered six field goals last week against the Lions — as a unit, the Baltimore offense has scored just five touchdowns total over the last four weeks of action. (In that time, they’€™ve gotten one kick return for a touchdown from Jones and 15 field goals from Tucker.) As a team, the Ravens are 25th in the league in scoring at 21.1 points per game. (By way of comparison, the Patriots are tied for 10th in the league in points allowed at 20.7 points per game.) If Baltimore can find a boost in the red zone from someone like running back Ray Rice or Pitta, the Ravens would probably feel better about their chances of coming away with a win.

8. Ravens fans should be worried about’€¦. the Patriots finding a way to solve their red zone woes. New England is 32-for-58 when it comes to red-zone touchdown opportunities, but the bulk of those numbers came because of Rob Gronkowski, who is a goal-line target without peer when it comes to the passing game. Without Gronk, those numbers take a hit — last week against the Dolphins, the Patriots were 1-for-4 on red-zone touchdown chances, and Brady completed just two of 11 passes inside the Miami 20. Without Gronkowski (or long, lean rookie receiver Aaron Dobson), the Patriots were forced to lean on smaller pass catchers like Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, and while they were terrific in between the 20s for most of the day, they were unable to get consistent separation inside the 20. The return of Dobson should theoretically give the Patriots a boost, but they’€™ll likely need more against Baltimore, one of the best red-zone defenses in the league.

9. One more thing: These two teams have played so many games over the last few seasons that have ultimately come down to special teams, particularly the kicking game. Billy Cundiff missed one that allows the Patriots to survive the 2011 AFC title game, while Tucker snuck one over an upright that allowed Baltimore to sneak away with a regular-season win last year. In the 2010 regular-season meeting between the two teams, Stephen Gostkowski delivered a 24-yarder in the fourth quarter to tie the game, and added a 35-yarder (his third field goal of the game) in the extra session to lift New England to the win. And Gostkowski made a pair in the 2007 classic regular-season contest, a game the Patriots won, 27-24. Given the fact that these two teams have played so many close games over the course of the 2013 season, as well as the fact that just about every time these two teams get together, it’€™s a close contest (since 2004, 5 of the 8 games between Patriots and Ravens have been decided by 6 points or less), and you can count on the kickers playing a huge role at some point come Sunday.

10. Prediction:

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