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13 Ravens opponents in 13 days: New England Patriots

In eager anticipation of the 2013 NFL season, Baltimore Sun blogger and reporter Matt Vensel will take a daily look at one of the 13 opponents on the Ravens’ regular-season schedule. Today is the New England Patriots.

Ravens-Patriots, one of the NFL’s best non-divisional rivalries right now, will be renewed once again in 2013, the fourth time in five years they will meet in the regular season. And control of the conference could be on the line when the Patriots show up for the Sunday night showdown at M&T; Bank Stadium in Week 16. Some expect both teams to take a step back, but there is no reason to believe they won’t be contenders again this fall.

Recapping 2012: It was same old, same old for the Patriots, who went 12-4 to finish with at least 10 wins for the 10th straight season. With quarterback Tom Brady once again playing at an MVP-type level, the Patriots led the NFL in total yards and points scored. When healthy, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez created matchup nightmares, and with the emergence of Stevan Ridley, they ranked seventh in rushing yards. The defense, which got a boost from the midseason trade for cornerback Aqib Talib, ranked ninth in points allowed. But the Ravens upset the Patriots, 28-13, in the AFC championship game on their way to the Super Bowl.

Cha-cha-changes: The biggest story of the entire NFL offseason has been Hernandez, who last week was arrested and charged in connection to a murder. The Patriots have released him and he may never play another down in the NFL. Gronkowski is in limbo, too, after having back surgery and a fourth operation done on his fractured forearm. Oh, and Wes Welker, Brady’s favorite target, has signed with the Denver Broncos, which means Brady’s top five targets from last season are all gone. However, the Patriots have signed former St. Louis Rams slot receiver Danny Amendola to help replace Welker’s production.

The skinny: Some have speculated that the loss of Welker and the arrest and release of Hernandez will bring upon the end of the Patriots’ long run of success, but let’s not forget about Brady, who had a 98.7 passer rating last season and who has had success in the past throwing to less-than-stellar receivers. Brady is still one of the NFL’s best, though the Patriots may become more of a run-oriented offense that continues to gas defenses with the no-huddle. Plus, the defense, which produced a lot of turnovers in 2012, has a lot of developing young talent to work with.

Recent history: It has been, in a word, spectacular. The Ravens and Patriots have played each other six times in the past four years, including three times in the playoffs. After beating the Patriots in the regular season for the first time back in September, the Ravens avenged their loss in the 2011 AFC championship game with that 15-point win in last year’s playoffs. This rivalry is red-hot and their Week 16 meeting will be must-watch TV for all NFL fans.

Degree of difficulty: This is the toughest game on the team's home schedule and their second-toughest game overall behind the season opener against the Broncos. The Ravens will probably be favored because this will be played at M&T; Bank Stadium, but as we have seen in his rivalry, the game should be close and could go either way. The degree of difficulty for this is nine out of 10.

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