1:27 AM EST, December 19, 2013
NFL Team Report - New England Patriots - INSIDE SLANT
The New England Patriots head into their final road game of the season with a losing record away from Gillette Stadium on the season thanks to defeats in New York, Cincinnati, Carolina and Miami.
New England has yet to clinch a playoff spot, never mind the AFC East or a first-round playoff bye. As such quarterback Tom Brady knows that his team's latest battle with Baltimore is a huge game, even if not literally a must-win.
"We need it," Brady said of Sunday's late afternoon game in Baltimore. "There's no bigger game than this one for us. We have to put everything we can into it. It's a very important game. As the season goes on, each of these games gets more and more important. We know how important this one is to try to win the division."
Brady is also looking to step up the competitive balance in this budding rivalry. He's just 3-3 in his career meetings with Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. New England has lost its last two regular-season meetings against the Ravens and missed a chance to go to the Super Bowl last winter when John Harbaugh's team pulled away in the AFC title game on the way to a title.
Brady's group was shut out in the second half of that game. It hasn't had its best offensive days against Baltimore's physical defense that's still formidable even with guys like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed no longer leading the way.
"It would be nice to go out there and play this team and play them well for once. We haven't done a great job playing against them offensively," Brady continued. "They present a lot of challenges. They've always had great players there; they still have some great players that are carryovers from last year's team and different guys that they've added this year. It's a really good group and they put a lot of pressure on you. They're good in the red area, they're good on third down. They do some really good things. It's going to be a big test."
As Brady said, the biggest test may be in the red zone. New England is struggling to find its identity on offense and that won't get any easier against a Ravens defense that's No. 4 in the NFL in the red zone, No. 9 in terms of yards and No. 7 in points allowed.
While tight end Rob Gronkowski is lost for the year, Brady is hoping that a couple weapons like rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins might return to action to give him added options against a tough unit.
"They've done some pretty good things for us this year. One of these days we'll get everyone back, hopefully it's before the end of the season. But we're just trying to deal with the guys that we have out there," Brady said. "The guys that have been healthy have all been contributing. I have a lot of confidence in the guys we have out there. We're going to try to go move the ball, we just have to score points. That's what it comes down to. You play a team like this that's (one of) the best red area defense in the league, they're going to challenge us to score points. Hopefully we won't help them to their No. 1 ranking, we can move them down a few spots."
Regardless, Brady knows it's going to be a battle, much like all the recent meetings with the Ravens have been.
"We've had some pretty memorable games against them, so I think that's the - the thing about it is the games have meant so much, especially over the last few years," Brady said. "You get a little bit of a rivalry and then you're always paying attention to what that team's doing. If you play a team once every four years, you don't pay attention too much but when you see them every week - you know you're going to see them at some point during the year, you always kind of follow them. Like I said, that was a real big win they had the other night. They needed it. They're always the kind of team that digs deep. We have to be able to match that."
SERIES HISTORY: 8th regular-season meeting. Patriots lead series, 6-1. New England has won six of the seven meetings in the series, including the first five dating back to the Ravens franchise coming into existence back in 1996. But Baltimore has won three of the last five contests overall, including a pair of postseason wins at Gillette Stadium. Since the 2010 regular season the teams have split four games and two AFC title games, with all four decided by a field goal or less. Billy Cundiff's miss of a short field goal that would have tied the game allowed New England to go to the Super Bowl in February 2012, while Anquan Boldin exploding for a pair of second-half touchdowns sent the Ravens to the big game last January. With playoff seeding on the line and memorable postseason contests, this has become a nice AFC rivalry in recent years.
NFL Team Report - New England Patriots - NOTES, QUOTES
--Running back LeGarrette Blount has led the Patriots in rushing in each of the last three weeks. As a member of the team's backfield committee, Blount has topped 40 yards in three straight weeks and six of the last seven. He ranks second on the team to Stevan Ridley with 113 attempts for 507 yards for an impressive 4.5-yard average. While Ridley has worked his way back into the mix after dealing with his fumbling issues, Blount has been the starter of late and the guy getting the most looks. At 6-foot, 250 he's also by far the biggest of the Patriots running backs.
"LeGarrette has done a good job with his opportunities," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "We've been rolling multiple backs certainly into the game the last so many weeks here, and he's definitely been productive with his opportunities to carry the ball. He definitely has a style of running the ball that is downhill. (He's) a bigger guy and certainly it's always tougher to bring those guys down because of their size."
--Defensive tackle Sealver Siliga has started each of the last two games for the Patriots after being promoted from the practice squad in late November. The second-year player has offered stout boost in the middle of what's been a struggling run defense since Vince Wilfork was lost for the season to a torn Achilles. With Siliga in the starting lineup, the Patriots held the Dolphins below 100 yards rushing, the first time the team accomplished that since Week 4 in Atlanta. The team has also held opponents to 4.3 yards or under in each of Siliga's three games, after allowing five yards or better in three of the four games before his promotion to the active roster.
"We're trying to play some different combinations of players on the front, and Sealver's been in there quite a bit, which has been good," New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. "He's a real quiet guy, but an extremely hard worker. He sits in the classroom and gets all the information and asks good questions, then obviously goes out on the practice field and tries to execute the things that we're talking about. But he's a strong guy, he's a big guy, he's got good size about him, so (he's) somebody that we try to get in the game to hold the point and be strong at the line of scrimmage and play with good technique, and he's trying to really improve that. Obviously we've got a long way to go and we're only a couple weeks into it, but he's certainly trying to improve that, and just trying to get him to play with some consistency in the technique and some of the fundamentals that we're asking him to do. Definitely he's a hard-working guy, quiet guy, but professional in his approach and is simply trying to learn the techniques and fundamentals that we're teaching him and try to apply them on the field, which is good to see."
--Head coach Bill Belichick officially announced the launch of the Bill Belichick Foundation Nov. 18. It's a non-profit organization created to provide coaching, mentorship, and financial assistance to individuals, communities and organizations with a focus on the sports of football and lacrosse, Belichick's two favorite sports. The organization is holding a raffle for a meet-and-greet with Belichick to attend the Patriots finale against the Bills at Gillette Stadium.
"My goal is to recognize, support and endow those with great potential who have a need for additional help and resources," Belichick said. "Mentorship has been ingrained in our family and we take a team approach to just about everything we do. We have been helped by so many people and we look forward to helping others however we can by relating our experiences and life lessons through a variety of athletic programs and services."
BY THE NUMBERS: 11 - The number of division titles Tom Brady will have won in his career if he can close the door on the AFC East over the next two weeks. New England has already won the division 10 times under Brady's direction, most division titles by any quarterback, slightly ahead of Peyton Manning and Joe Montana, with nine each.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Poorly." - Coach Bill Belichick on how he "executes" his Christmas shopping this time of year despite all the rigors and distractions of the football season.
NFL Team Report - New England Patriots - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--LG Logan Mankins admitted that he's preparing for the possibility that he could play left tackle again this week, the role the Pro Bowler filled due to a Nate Solder injury in Sunday's loss in Miami. Mankins has played the tackle spot in just two games in his career.
--WR Josh Boyce did not practice on Wednesday after leaving the second half of Sunday's game in Miami with an ankle injury.
--LT Nate Solder did not practice on Wednesday due to a concussion. This is the second straight Wednesday the lineman has missed to a concussion first suffered two weeks ago against Cleveland. He returned to action last Sunday in Miami, but left the game in the fourth quarter after getting hit the head yet again.
--WR Danny Amendola was one of 13 Patriots limited in practice on Wednesday, missing time as he continues to battle a groin injury.
--CB Kyle Arrington continues to be limited in practice due to a groin issue.
--QB Tom Brady was limited in Wednesday practice for the second straight week with a right shoulder injury.
--OT Marcus Cannon remains limited with an ankle injury despite retuning to the starting lineup on Sunday in Miami.
--CB Alfonzo Dennard was once again limited in practice because of knee and shoulder injuries.
--CB Aqib Talib remains limited in practice with the hip injury that he's been battling for months.
--WR Kenbrell Thompkins remains limited with a hip injury, having missed the last two games to the issue.
The Patriots and Ravens have played a combined 16 games decided by three points or less this season. The two teams have four straight matchups in the series decided by three points or less. So there is a pretty solid chance that Sunday's AFC title game rematch in Baltimore will be a close football game with a lot of physical play on both sides of the ball. The key for New England's offense will be taking advantage of red-zone chances. Last week the Patriots were just one of four in the red zone in Miami in the first game since Rob Gronkowski landed on IR. Tom Brady will continue to try to find elusive red-zone success without Gronkowski, but it won't be easy against the Ravens' No. 4-ranked red-zone defense. Baltimore fields a strong defensive front, a characteristic that's been consistent with the Patriots previous four road losses this year to the Jets, Bengals, Panthers and Dolphins. Brady may try to lean a bit more on a committee running game with the many injuries he's dealing with at the receiver position, but he should move the ball. If he can score touchdowns rather than field goals, he'll have a chance to lead the road victory. Defensively, the Patriots are hanging on for dear life. The run defense is struggling, but that may not be an issue against a team that averages just three yards per carry on the ground. The pass rush hasn't been consistent enough and the coverage has been shaky thanks in part to guys being slowed by injuries in recent weeks. New England has gotten a little more creative at times with stunts and corner blitzes, and that may be needed to get after Joe Flacco who has been sacked 42 times this season. The biggest issue for the defense is trying to get around the football and get back to creating turnovers. The unit hasn't had an interception in the last two games, but Flacco has thrown 17 picks this season and had five multi-interception games. New England also needs to be stout in the red zone, as forcing field goals will give Brady and Co. a chance, but dealing with Ray Rice out of the backfield and the return of Dennis Pitta will challenge the Patriots in that area. Baltimore did settle for six field goals in last week's win in Detroit.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Patriots tackles vs. Ravens pass rushers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil -- New England has already started three different guys at right tackle, now third-year left tackle Nate Solder has had a concussion in consecutive games. That forced Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins to move to left tackle last week. Mankins or veteran Will Svitek are options if Solder can't go, while Marcus Cannon will likely be at right tackle after returning from his own ankle injury. Those edge guys will face the dynamic duo of Suggs and Dumervil, who've combined for 18.5 sacks this season. Pressure has been an issue for the offense in recent weeks, and that likely won't change in this battle with the unsettled nature of the tackle position in New England.
--Patriots CB Aqib Talib vs. Ravens WR Torrey Smith -- Talib has been battling a hip injury for months, and hasn't matched up with top receivers as often in recent weeks. He struggled two weeks ago against Josh Gordon, and Smith has similar big-play potential. Smith leads the Ravens with 59 catches for 1,032 yards for a 17.5-yard average and four scores. Talib clearly isn't at full health, so the Ravens could certainly look to challenge the deep part of the field with Smith in an effort to exploit the various injuries throughout the New England secondary.
--Patriots C Ryan Wendell vs. Ravens Pro Bowl NT Haloti Ngata -- Wendell is by far the smallest, weakest member of the New England line. He struggles in matchups with powerful defenders, and Ngata is one of the best in the game. Right guard Dan Connolly has also struggled a bit in recent weeks, so the interior of the Patriots offensive line will have its hands full against an impressive, physical defensive front. That's not a situation that generally leads to success for the New England offense. Ngata is in the middle of the all.
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