New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, one of the toughest matchups in the NFL, is out for the rest of the season after having back surgery. Veteran receiver Danny Amendola, who is tied for the team lead with four touchdown receptions, is expected to miss Monday night's game against the Ravens with an ankle injury.
The Patriots' starting offensive line includes one rookie and two second-year players, and among the team's top targets are rookie Malcolm Mitchell and veterans Chris Hogan and Martellus Bennett, two players in their first season with the team.
Only three offensive players that started for the Patriots when they last met the Ravens in a divisional playoff game on Jan. 10, 2015, will be starting Monday night at Gillette Stadium. Yet, the only thing that seemed to matter to the Ravens this week was that the guy who directs the Patriots offense remains the same, perhaps even better.
"When you look at him, you think that's he's 25," Ravens cornerback Jerraud Powers said of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. "I don't think he's aged a bit."
Brady is actually 39 and in his 17th NFL season. With 19 touchdowns and one interception in eight games since returning from his four-game suspension, he remains as prolific and dangerous as ever. Blitz him and he gets the ball out quickly to the "hot" receiver. Sit back in coverage and he picks the defense apart with pinpoint throws. Take away one thing and he finds another mismatch to exploit.
Stopping Brady and the Patriots offense remains an enigma for defensive coordinators. But as the Ravens (7-5) prepare for their latest matchup against the Patriots (10-2), they've at least had some moderate success to fall back on. Brady is 7-3 in his career against the Ravens, but he has thrown 12 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions in those 10 games. Brady's 58.3 regular-season completion percentage against the Ravens is his lowest against any opponent and his 83.6 quarterback rating against them is his fourth lowest.
"If you look at Tom and his history of going against a Baltimore Ravens defense, he's not fared too good against them," said Brady's former teammate Randy Moss, now an analyst for ESPN.
Both the Patriots and Ravens have spent the past week downplaying the significance of any of the previous meetings. Both teams have experienced significant turnover since the last matchup, the Patriots' 35-31 victory that helped vault their Super Bowl run at the end of the 2014 season. Many of the names and faces may have changed, but the identities of each team haven't.
Whether Brady has to rely on his running backs, tight ends or wide receivers, he finds a way to dissect defenses and get the Patriots in the end zone. The Ravens pride themselves on having a fast and aggressive defense.
"It's just two good teams," Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "What they do isn't rocket science. They execute very well and they're very well coached. They don't miss tackles on defense and they don't drop a lot of balls on offense. When they catch a five-yard crossing route, they get extra yards. I think that's what helps their offense go so well. On our part, we have to be a great tackling defense, a very physical defense that kind of helps stop what Brady does."
Smith said he feels like the Ravens "can get after" the Patriots. When asked why, he said, "Because we're the Ravens."
It, however, is going to take a lot more than confidence to contain Brady, even with his thinned supporting cast. The New York Giants slowed down the Patriots in two Super Bowls, and the Denver Broncos did it in the AFC championship game, by relying on a relentless pass rush.
Current Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan's defenses have had some success in the past disguising pressures and coverages. There, however, has been no sure formula, which is why Brady has won 201 career games, more than any quarterback in NFL history.
"It's the same musts you have every week," said Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who spent six seasons as a Patriots defensive coach, working against Brady in practice. "You have to stop the run — can't let them get the running game started. You can't give up big plays. You have to make them go the long way. … You just can't give up cheap touchdowns. You can't give up big runs after catch. It doesn't change any with their team. That's just the fundamentals of defense, and that's what we have to be able to do."
Ravens safety Lardarius Webb said the key to limiting Brady is to show him different looks. Webb acknowledged that Brady has pretty much seen everything, but changing up coverages gives the quarterback something to think about. Ravens defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan suggested that the Ravens need to just stay true to their defensive strengths and force the Patriots to adjust. That's easier said than done because New England has a history of drastically changing its game plan each week.
Powers said that any defensive success starts with applying pressure to Brady, getting him to move his feet and forcing him off his spot. The Ravens have sacked the New England quarterback 20 times in 10 matchups, but Brady gets rid of the ball so quickly and the Patriots' precise short-passing game often nullifies any pass rush. Brady has been sacked just 11 times in eight games this season.
"It doesn't make much sense to blitz a guy that gets rid of the ball in less than 1.5 seconds," said former NFL coach Jon Gruden, who is part of ESPN's broadcasting team for Monday Night Football. "I think one of the great things the Ravens do is bat down passes. I think they got Andy Dalton five times a couple of weeks ago. A couple of times, they batted down passes against Pittsburgh. Jernigan got an interception on a batted ball.
"That's the thing: rush with your eyes and if you can't get there, throw your hands up and reject a couple of these passes because the ball is coming out quick. That's a great thing to do: shut the run game down and watch out for the screens and quick passes."
Moss said the key for the Ravens will be stopping the Patriots on first down when "they're going to run, play action, spread you out." The Ravens have had the top third-down defense in the league, so getting the Patriots in third-and-longs is ideal for them.
"They're the first-rated defense in the league, so no one has done a better job over the course of the season than them," Brady said. "I think they do things really well in a lot of areas, so they're good in first-down defense, good in third-down defense, third-and-short, good on the goal line, good in the red area. They contest every yard, so I think that's the mark of a good defense. They don't give you anything easy. You have to earn it. I think they do a good mix with their scheme and also with their personnel."
The Ravens entered their Week 11 showdown against the NFC-best Dallas Cowboys with the league's top-ranked defense. Their game plan that day was to stuff the Cowboys' vaunted running game and make rookie quarterback Dak Prescott beat them down the field. It worked for almost a half before Dallas wore down the Ravens. Prescott threw for 301 yards and three touchdowns, and the Ravens defense couldn't get off the field on third down.
That Ravens defense didn't include an injured Smith, the team's top corner, or now-healthy pass rusher Elvis Dumervil. They'll both be on the field Monday, and they'll be needed against a quarterback who remains at the top of his game.
"It's going to be a challenge," Dumervil said, "but it's a challenge that we want because we're a top defense and we feel like we have great players, too."
Baltimore Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article.
Good but not great
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has had a few big games against the Ravens and has played winning football, but he hasn't taken their defense apart with regularity like he has done to so many other teams. Below is a look at his per game history against the Ravens.
Date; Result; Comp.-Att.-Yds; Comp. %; TDs; INTs; Sacked; QB rating;
Nov. 28, 2004; Patriots, 24-3; 15-30-172; 50.0 0; 0; 1; 67.6;
Dec. 3, 2007; Patriots, 27-24; 18-38-257; 47.4; 2; 1; 3; 76.3;
Oct. 4, 2009; Patriots, 27-21; 21-32-258; 65.6; 1; 0; 3; 100.8;
*Jan. 10, 2010; Ravens, 33-14; 23-42-154; 54.8; 2; 3; 3; 49.1;
Oct. 17, 2010; Patriots, 23-20 (OT); 27-44-292; 61.4; 1; 2; 3; 69.5;
Baltimore Ravens Insider
**Jan. 22, 2012; Patriots, 23-20; 22-36-239; 61.1; 0; 2; 1; 57.5;
Sept. 23, 2012; Ravens, 31-30; 28-41-335; 68.3; 1; 0; 2; 101.2;
**Jan. 20, 2013; Ravens, 28-13; 29-54-320; 53.7; 1; 2; 0; 62.3;
Dec. 22, 2013; Patriots, 41-7; 14-26-172; 53.9; 1; 0; 2; 87.3;
***Jan. 10, 2015; Patriots, 35-31; 33-50-367; 66.0; 3; 1; 2; 99.3;
Total: 10 games; 7-3 record; 230-393-2,566; 58.5; 12; 11; 20; 76.6;
Note: *- AFC wild-card game; **AFC conference championship; ***AFC divisional playoff game.