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Ravens-Patriots wild-card primer

The road to Indianapolis for a Saturday night rematch with the Colts starts with the ground game in Foxborough. The Ravens are counting on a big passing game from Joe Flacco, but not necessarily this week.

For the Ravens to win today, they need to punish the Patriots' defense, and the way to do that is with the running game. Even without a 50-yard gain, Ray Rice averaged five yards a carry against the Patriots in their Week 4 matchup. The way Willis McGahee ran last week in Oakland gives the Ravens more than one option -- and one style -- to run the ball.

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The Patriots ranked 13th in run defense, but defensive end Ty Warren and inside linebacker Jerod Mayo are back from injuries, and nosetackle Vince Wilfork is healthy. The Ravens are likely to counter with more and bigger bodies in the run game.

So watch for their unbalanced line early. The Ravens gouged the Raiders with a variety of unbalanced formations, and they should keep up that trend.

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Other points to look for:

(1) The Patriots will go with as many as five linebackers -- and six defensive backs -- to handle obvious passing situations on occasion. How the Ravens attack that scheme will be interesting. They have been conservative in the passing game with Flacco of late. But Cam Cameron is not afraid to pull the trigger on the deep ball when he's got the right matchup.

(2) New England took wide-out Derrick Mason away the first time they played after Mason moved the Ravens down the field on their first series. If the Patriots roll the coverage to Mason again, it will be important for Mark Clayton, Kelley Washington or Todd Heap to make them pay. Heap is hot and New England will have to account for him. He could be huge in this game.

(3) Given all the discussion last week about the officials protecting Tom Brady, it seems unlikely that the Patriots will have that advantage today. Brady isn't going to be able to dictate penalties the way he did in October. The officials are under the microscope, too, and they can't show partiality on the big stage.

(4) Long snaps have become a play to watch recently for the Ravens. Matt Katula got a strong vote of confidence from coach John Harbaugh last week, but so did Steve Hauschka when he struggled. And we know what happened to Hauschka. Katula can't afford any more errant snaps because the Ravens will need to capitalize on all their scoring opportunities in what will obviously be a field-position game.

(5) Clock management is always critical. Harbaugh has to use his timeouts wisely and challenges prudently if he's going to make the trip to Indianapolis next Saturday. There can be no more snafus.


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