PASSING GAME: Joe Flacco had one of the better games of his career in the AFC championship loss to the Patriots, completing 22 of 36 passes for a franchise playoff record 306 yards and two touchdowns. He currently leads a passing attack that averages 261 yards per game, the ninth best total in the NFL. However, Flacco is coming off a second half against the Philadelphia Eagles in which he went just 8 of 25 with an interception. The Ravens are looking to get their wide receivers more involved as Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones have combined for 14 catches in two weeks.
RUNNING GAME: The good news for the Ravens is that Ray Rice has been productive when he's gotten the ball, averaging 6.4 yards per carry and scoring two touchdowns. However, he has just 26 carries in two games, a number matched or eclipsed by 23 different running backs through two weeks. Rice also has yet to get a carry on third or fourth down, where the Ravens are just 8 of 26 on the season. Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach will probably be on the field a lot more this week to help deal with New England's physical group of linebackers.
RUSH DEFENSE: Gouged by former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis in Week 1, the Ravens' run defense stiffened last week, holding the dangerous LeSean McCoy to 81 yards on 25 carries. Rush linebacker Albert McClellan had six tackles and was key in setting the edge. This group has allowed 129 yards on the ground per game and has given up three rushing touchdowns after allowing 10 during the entire regular season last year. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis leads the Ravens with 19 tackles.
(EDGE: PATRIOTS )
PASS DEFENSE: The Ravens' secondary was supposed to be a strength but through the preseason and first two regular season games, the unit has given up far too many big plays. After allowing Michael Vick to throw for 371 yards last week, the Ravens fell to 26th in the NFL against the pass, surrendering 275 yards per game. The culprits have been too many blown assignments — Eagles' tight end Brent Celek encountered little resistance in catching eight passes for 157 yards — not making plays on the ball and failing to mount a consistent pass rush.
(EDGE: RAVENS )
SPECIAL TEAMS: Lost in the uneven performance of the offense and the disappointing showing by the defense, the Ravens' special teams have played two strong games. While Billy Cundiff's decisive miss versus the Patriots in January has been a popular topic this week, his replacement, rookie Justin Tucker, has made all six of his attempts, five of them from 40-plus yards. Sam Koch is averaging 48.3 yards per punt and rookie Deonte Thompson is second in the NFL with 188 kickoff return yards. Both coverage units have been solid.
INTANGIBLES: Obviously, the Ravens have plenty of motivation coming in, from revenging the AFC championship game loss in January to erasing the memories of last weekend's defeat to the Eagles. The Ravens have won 13 straight games the week following losses and haven't had a two-game losing streak under John Harbaugh since dropping three straight in October of the 2009 season. They also carry an 11-game winning streak at M&T Bank Stadium, the longest in the NFL. The Ravens have never beaten the Patriots in the regular season.
PASSING GAME: Through two weeks, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has put up modest numbers by his enormous standards, throwing for 552 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. In four career regular seasons games against the Ravens, Brady has averaged 244.8 yards to go along with four touchdowns and three interceptions. He struggled in the AFC title game, throwing two interceptions. Brady has a new weapon in speedy wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, but after getting destroyed by Celek last week, the Ravens obviously will play close attention to high-scoring tight end Rob Gronkowski.
RUNNING GAME: With second-year running back Stevan Ridley replacing Green-Ellis as New England's featured runner, the Patriots' attack has been more balanced. Ridley ranks third in the AFC with 196 rushing yards. He also has 39 carries, 13 more than the Ravens' Rice. Danny Woodhead has also pitched in with 14 carries. Overall, New England is averaging 126 yards per game on the ground, the ninth highest total in the league. Last year, the Patriots were 20th in the league in rushing yards and 17th in attempts but there clearly appears to be an effort this year to work in the ground game more.
RUSH DEFENSE: The Patriots are surprisingly ranked second overall in team defense and a big part of that has been a strong effort in the run game. Led by weak-side linebacker Jerod Mayo who is third in the NFL with 22 tackles, the Patriots have surrendered just 62.5 yards per game on the ground, the fifth lowest total in the league. New England has struggled to slow Rice, allowing him 417 rushing yards and two touchdowns in four games. Mammoth tackle Vince Wilfork will line up all over the place and give defenses fits. Linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower also need to be accounted for.
PASS DEFENSE: The signing of veteran safety Steve Gregory to team with Patrick Chung has solidified a secondary that was a disaster for much of last season. Rookie first-round pick Chandler Jones has one of the Patriots' three sacks and two forced fumbles. Only the Green Bay Packers allowed more passing yards than the Patriots did last year. However, this season, New England has permitted 202 passing yards per game, the seventh best total in the NFL. Devin McCourty is the Patriots' top corner. The Ravens also have bad memories of reserve cornerback Sterling Moore who slapped the ball away from Lee Evans last year, preventing the likely game-winning touchdown in the AFC championship .
SPECIAL TEAMS: Stephen Gostkowski has made six-of-seven field-goal attempts, but he was unable to connect from 42 yards in the closing seconds last week as the Patriots were beaten. Still, he is a normally-reliable veteran who has made 34-of-40 field goal attempts over the past two seasons. Zoltan Mesko has averaged 36.2 yards per punt but has put five inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Wide receiver Julian Edelman and McCourty are New England's primary two returners. Matthew Slater is a Pro Bowl special teams coverage guy.
INTANGIBLES: The Ravens look up to few teams in terms of regular season success but the Patriots are one of them. Since 2000, the Patriots have had two more winning seasons than the Ravens, one more playoff berth and 23 more regular season wins. The Patriots have played just two regular season games in Baltimore, winning in 1996 and 2007. Bill Belichick will undoubtedly have his team ready after the Patriots were upset by the Arizona Cardinals, 20-18, in their home opener last week. New England is 14-2 in games following losses since 2008.
PREDICTION: The Ravens surrendered 322 yards of offense to the Cincinnati Bengals and 486 yards to the Eagles. Though the Patriots spent all week talking about how much they respect the Ravens' defense, it clearly isn't the same group that they faced in late January and so many times before that. That ultimately will be the difference, more than the potential absence of tight end Aaron Hernandez. I expect a tight game throughout and I'd be very surprised if Rice doesn't get more touches than he's had the previous two weeks. However, with the game on the line, Brady will have the ball in his hands and that's usually not a good thing for the opposition. It certainly won't be for the Ravens.
Patriots, 27-23.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun