The NFL’s most anticipated Week 3 matchup takes place in Baltimore on Sunday night when the Ravens host the New England Patriots in a rematch of last year’s thrilling AFC Championship.
The Patriots narrowly escaped that game by final score of 23-20 to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, after a finish no longer necessary for discussion here in Baltimore.
Both teams enter the game with 1-1 records and looking to right their respective ships after losses in Week 2.
The Ravens turned in a lackluster 2nd half offensive performance last week and fell to the Eagles 24-23 in Philly, while the Patriots were shocked at home by Arizona 20-18 after kicker Stephen Gostowski missed a would-be game-winning field goal as time expired.
Each team could use a win this week to get back above .500 and to gain an early edge in conference playoff seeding as well as in the possibility of a tiebreak scenario down the stretch in January.
Despite several close games and nail-biting finishes over the past several years, the Ravens have never actually beaten the Patriots in the regular season, as New England leads the series 6-0.
Here are some keys to the game to look for in this year’s installment of one of the league’s most heated rivalries.
Revenge is like the sweetest joy…
While nothing can adequately cleanse the bitterness of coming within inches of a long-sought Super Bowl appearance, the Ravens should still be able to use the hurt from last year’s Patriots loss to motivate themselves to return the punch.
It helps that the game is in away team unfriendly Baltimore, where the Ravens have been downright dominant under coach Harbaugh, winning the past 11 straight and 19 of their last 20 games at M&T Bank.
They also have some history on their side as they’ve won their last 13 games in the week following a loss, a streak that dates back to 2009. Additionally, the “we’ve been waiting all offseason to pummel the team that knocked us out” factor was alive and well last year when the Ravens crushed the Steelers in Week 1, so you have to believe that harnessing a similar Ray Lewis led mindset for New England is well within the realm of expectation.
Of course they’d quickly trade these revenge opportunities for the jewelry that Victor Cruz and Eli get to wear around, but that’s not how last year unfolded, and all you can do is prepare yourself to the best of your abilities for your next game, yesterday is yesterday, and therefore, irrelevant to dwell on.
A healthy snack is Rice with Leach
Although the Ravens have become enamored with their new pass-happy, Flacco-led fireworks offense, last week they got away from giving the ball to their most dynamic play-maker in Ray Rice, who had showed he could gash up the Eagles’ run defense in the first half, which led to them having no offensive rhythm or clue whatsoever of how to effectively move the ball by the 4th quarter.
Rice has had just 26 carries total in the first two games. While limiting his carries early in the season could add to his longevity down the stretch, the Ravens should still remember to pound the ball and control the clock with their pro bowl running back behind the best blocking fullback in the NFL, Vonta Leach, who is, coincidentally, also on the roster.
In order for the Ravens to get anything going offensively, they have to find an answer for Patriots nose tackle, Vince Wilfork. Wilfork was in the backfield blowing up run plays and getting in Flacco’s face all afternoon in the championship game last January.
Ravens center Matt Birk had no answer for the mammoth tackle. He was either too worn by fatigue at that point in the season, or is just not able to handle a house like Wilfork anymore at this stage of his career, but whatever the case may be, the Ravens have to figure out how to stop Wilfork in order to sustain offensive drives, put up points, and win the game.
The Patriots loss of star tight end Aaron Hernandez would seem to help the Ravens' defensive chances in this game, at least on paper. However, Pats head coach Bill Belichick always pulls out a new offensive wrinkle or a different look to throw the other team’s defense off guard.
In the AFC Championship, Belichick won the coaching chess match by running the ball early when the Ravens were set up to defend pass. This put the Ravens' defense on their heals and as the game wore on, they didn’t know what to expect, which led to Brady driving down the field at will.
In this matchup, the Ravens must be dynamic enough on defense to react and defend whatever Belichick throws their way, whether it’s Gronkowski running an end around, Wilfork lining up at wide receiver, or Welker tossing a corner fade to Brady, because as we know, the sly-est coach in the land will most definitely have the kitchen sink on the sideline.
These two teams both highly-respect and despise one another. The Ravens' hard-hitting, blue-collar defensive mindset directly contradicts with the Patriots’ spy-gate techniques and reliance on the league’s recently added quarterback protection rules to draw mythical 15 yard penalties when the pass rush creates a breeze past Brady.
The Ravens have the added motivation of atoning for the heartbreaking defeat last January and the advantage of playing in the friendly confines of their home stadium, but another close, 24-20 type game is likely in the cards because that’s just what happens when these two perennial stalwarts of the AFC line up and get after one another.