RAVENS: In his last four games against the Patriots, quarterback Joe Flacco has thrown for 1,213 yards, 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Flacco has moved well around the pocket in recent weeks, but his mobility may be affected by his sprained left knee. Torrey Smith has 24 catches and three touchdowns in three games versus New England, but he has struggled lately, with five catches over the past two games despite being targeted 17 times. The Ravens have to find a way to score in the red zone.
PATRIOTS: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day, but he has looked ordinary at times against the Ravens. They are the only team against whom he has thrown more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (eight). Despite heavy turnover with his offensive personnel, Brady has had one of his best seasons, relying on a group of unheralded pass catchers that includes Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen. Six different Patriots have 30 or more catches.
RAVENS: After saying for the past two months that he’s healthy, running back Ray Rice acknowledged this week that he’s still not 100 percent. He missed practice Wednesday because of a thigh injury, though he’s expected to get a normal workload against the Patriots, who struggle against the run. The Ravens averaged 4.3 yards per carry last week against the Detroit Lions, which was a season-high. With Flacco’s mobility in question, expect the Ravens to try and establish the running game early.
PATRIOTS: New England is 12th in the league in rushing, averaging 118.3 yards per game on the ground. They don’t necessarily have a featured back, choosing instead to stay with the hot hand. Stevan Ridley is their most explosive option, and he has seven touchdowns this season, but he has also lost four fumbles. At 250 pounds, LeGarrette Blount brings physicality, while Vereen is most dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield. The Patriots have the most rushing touchdowns in the NFL since 2003.
RAVENS: The Ravens have surrendered a rushing touchdown in three straight weeks after they went seven consecutive games without allowing one. Still, they are seventh in the league against the run, allowing 102.4 yards per game on the ground. Green Bay Packers rookie Eddie Lacy remains the only running back to gain over 100 yards against the Ravens this season. Pro Bowl nose tackle Haloti Ngata may have played his best game of the season last week against Detroit.
PATRIOTS: With defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo all out with season-ending injuries, the Patriots have put up little resistance against the run. Teams are averaging 132.5 rushing yards per game against them, the second highest total in the NFL. Brandon Spikes and Don’t’a Hightower are two active linebackers, but the Patriots starting interior defensive linemen — Joe Vellano (Maryland) and Chris Jones — are both rookies.
RAVENS: Terrell Suggs, no stranger to being the center of attention before a Ravens-Patriots game, took the brunt of the criticism this week for his team’s recent pass-rushing woes. Suggs has gone six games without a sack, and the Ravens have just one total sack over the past three games. Cornerback Corey Graham, who will likely be matched up in the slot with either Danny Amendola or Julian Edelman, will be tested early and often. Rookie safety Matt Elam appears to be playing with more confidence.
PATRIOTS: The Patriots are a little vulnerable on the back end, but their defense does produce turnovers and they have two productive pass-rushing ends. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich have combined for 17 1/2 sacks. Aqib Talib is one of the league’s best cornerbacks, and assuming he’s recovered from a hip injury, he’ll probably shadow Torrey Smith. Hightower can be a liability in pass coverage, and the Ravens would love to isolate him against Ray Rice or tight end Dennis Pitta.
RAVENS: Whether it’s Justin Tucker hitting a clutch field goal, Jacoby Jones setting up the offense with a long return or punter Sam Koch pinning the opposition inside the 20-yard line, the Ravens’ special teams unit has played a prominent role in the four-game winning streak. Tucker has made 33 field goals in a row, but the Ravens would rather score touchdowns and depend on him a little less. Jones is fourth in the league in kickoff return average and remains a threat to go the distance at any time.
PATRIOTS: As good as Justin Tucker has been for the Ravens, Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski has nearly matched him by hitting 32 of 35 field-goal attempts. The Patriots have gotten little from their kickoff return game, but Edelman is dangerous on punt returns. Their coverage teams, led by two-time Pro Bowl selection Matthew Slater, are among the league’s best. Rookie Ryan Allen handles the punting after beating out veteran Zoltan Mesko in the preseason.
RAVENS: The Ravens are suddenly riding a surge of momentum with four straight wins, including the last three by three points or less. They are 6-1 at M&T Bank Stadium this season, and they surely won’t be intimidated by Tom Brady or the Patriots’ mystique. They have beaten New England in two straight games and in three of the past five meetings. The Ravens have been playing must-win games for more than a month, and they’ve handled the pressure really well.
PATRIOTS: Though so many names and faces are different, this year’s Patriots have taken on the personality of so many of Bill Belichick’s teams. They know how to finish, outscoring teams, 139-79, in the fourth quarter. They win close games, going 7-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less. And they don’t beat themselves, ranking 10th in the league with a plus-six turnover ratio and committing the fewest penalties in the NFL. The Patriots are just 3-4 on the road this season.
PREDICTION: A conference champion won’t be decided on Sunday, but the latest matchup between these two teams still carries major playoff ramifications. The Patriots are looking to lock up the AFC East title and move closer to a first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage. The Ravens need a win to maintain their hold on the sixth playoff spot and stay in the AFC North race. As clutch as Flacco has been, it’s hard to go against Brady in a game of this magnitude. The Patriots haven’t lost two games in a row since last September. In another classic between the rivals, Gostkowski kicks the game-winner as the tables are turned on the Ravens. Patriots, 20-19Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun