Saturday, December 21, 2013

Four Point Stance: Patriots at Ravens


Despite some crazy postseason drama one year ago and even crazier offseason changes, the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens are in the same place they're used to being in -- battling for the best AFC playoff spot.

Following a hard-fought loss that kept the Dolphins in the playoff mix and the division up for grabs, the Pats roll into Baltimore looking to solidify their spot in the postseason and work toward a first-round bye. With a win against Detroit Monday night and the loss by Cincinnati, the Ravens would love to pick up another victory Sunday and make a move toward snagging a playoff spot straight up via the division title.

To accomplish their goal, New England will have to awaken its running game, which has been largely inactive the last two games in the red zone and has failed to amass more than 100 yards in three games despite its legitimate average (118 per game). Baltimore is in the same boat, sporting a dreadful run game that's tallied only 83 yards per game due mostly to its mix-and-match offensive line.

When the Patriots have the ball:
On top of improving the run game's scoring efficiency, quarterback Tom Brady will need to work through the loss of the missing Rob Gronkowski, which means continuing to rely on wide receivers Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman for key catches, particularly on third down. Running back/third-down receiving specialist Shane Vereen will be a big part of that plan as well, though Baltimore's defense showed some serious teeth last week versus Detroit's no-back set.  The key here will be whether the Baltimore defensive unit can force some turnovers, which they've struggled to do this season, while also continuing its stout red zone scoring defense.

When the Ravens have the ball:
It's no secret that quarterback Joe Flacco likes to drop back and throw, which has been even more of a certainty this season given the team's inefficiencies in the running game. No. 1 wideout Torrey Smith, who's already over 1,000 yards receiving, will likely be up against standout corner Aqib Talib, who's shown his physicality can outmatch a lot of top-tier receivers. Whether Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce can get the running game going early will be a huge difference-maker, and if the two are shut down like they have been, it'll be a tough day for Ravens wideouts. New England is allowing around 132 yards per game on the ground, however, so it may be the Ravens best chance for a balanced offensive attack all season.

Red zone defense. Baltimore has made a living of shutting down opposing offenses, currently touting the league's fourth-best red zone conversion rate (43 percent). New England, on the other hand, currently sits 21st in the league in defensive efficiency in the red zone and has allowed touchdowns 75 percent of the time in the last three games. Watch out for the Ravens run duo, which has tallied only six total touchdowns this year and is going up a defense that has quashed ground attempts inside the red zone. New England may have a chance, however, as Baltimore's red zone D has allowed seven touchdowns in its last seven attempts.

Baltimore has grabbed three of the last five games against the AFC East juggernauts, though most of the two teams' recent battles have been in the playoffs. The most exciting of those games was last year's AFC East Championship battle, when Flacco threw for three touchdowns and out-shined his former Hall of Fame foe in a decisive 28-13 victory. The Ravens will look to make it three straight this weekend at M&T Bank Stadium, where they've only lost once to the Pats.

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