Every week leading into the New England Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss go over the matchup. This week, it's a Sunday game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore (CBS, 4:25 p.m. ET):
Mike: Let's get right into it, Tedy. What do you see from this Ravens team?
Tedy: This is a different set of circumstances for them this year. Last season they struggled down the stretch -- losing 23-20 to the Steelers on Dec. 2, losing at Washington 31-28 and at Denver 34-17, before beating the Giants 33-14 and closing with a 23-17 loss at Cincinnati. But then they turned it on in the playoffs, parlaying it into a Super Bowl.
It's nothing like the present picture. They've won four in a row -- against the Jets, Steelers, Vikings and Lions. Now they've taken the role of the team late in the season that is building momentum toward a playoff push. Watching them play Monday night against the Lions, when they don't even score a touchdown but get six field goals from kicker Justin Tucker, the resolve of this team is evident. It's going to be tough for the Patriots to go on the road and get this victory.
Mike: Bill Belichick has made the point that he's focused mostly on the Ravens' most recent games, and that's something you are stressing as well. The NFL season is long and maybe no team has evolved as much as Baltimore.
1. Red-zone woes on offense without TE Rob Gronkowski.
2. Offensive line play has been up and down, making it one of the surprises of the season.
3. Looking ahead to the 2014 NFL draft and positions/prospects that might fit.
4. How important is a first-round playoff bye?
5. Receiver Julian Edelman as he approaches free agency.
6. Thoughts on DTs Sealver Siliga and Isaac Sopoaga.
Solder, the towering left tackle, left Sunday’s game in Miami early in the fourth quarter with the injury after being limited in the week leading up to the game with a concussion. He was replaced by starting left guard Logan Mankins, with rookie Josh Kline taking Mankins' normal alignment.
Boyce suffered his injury late in the game on Sunday as well, leading to increased repetitions for veteran Austin Collie. Fellow rookie wideouts Kenbrell Thompkins (hip) and Aaron Dobson (foot) practiced again. The Patriots are hopeful to get the duo back this week after a combined five games missed.
The team practiced again on the game field, something that might be due to the fact that the Ravens play on a field turf surface at their home stadium (Gillette Stadium is a field turf surface). The Patriots also practiced in shells and helmets this morning, as they did on Wednesday.
The Patriots will suit up for their final practice of the week on Friday before traveling on Saturday to Baltimore for a Week 16 matchup with the Ravens, during which they can clinch the AFC East division crown with a win.
Bruschi instead has put together his own formula, averaging what he views as the four key statistics: points allowed (only on defense, not including pick-sixes or special-teams scores), red zone defense (measured by percentage of touchdowns allowed versus total trips), third-down percentage and total turnovers (created solely by the defense, not including special teams).
What results, with an assist from Jason Vida of ESPN’s Stats & Information department, is the “Bruschi defensive index.”
This week, there is also an “offensive index” and some thoughts on this week’s indexes include:
1. The NFC’s top-seeded team at this time, the Seahawks, leads the defensive index while the AFC’s top-seeded team at this time, the Broncos, leads the offensive index.
2. The Patriots slip to 10th in the offensive index after being in the top 5 earlier in the year. Losing Rob Gronkowski has hurt them.
3. The growth of the Ravens’ defense shows as they are at No. 6.
4. A well-deserved move into the top 10 on defense for the Dolphins. Coach Joe Philbin deserves praise for keeping things together.
5. The Cowboys, at No. 5 on offense, might be a surprise to some.
Last week against the Miami Dolphins, the Patriots played all but five snaps in their sub packages (five or six defensive backs). This was a result of treating tight end Charles Clay as more of a wide receiver.
Overall, here are the numbers for the season (includes penalties):
Sub defense: 663 of 1,013 snaps (65.4 percent)
Base defense: 330 of 1,013 snaps (32.6 percent)
Short-yardage: 20 of 1,013 snaps (2 percent)
When looking ahead to Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens, it could be more of the same if the Ravens play the way they did against Detroit on Monday night, favoring the three-receiver package. The Ravens used a lead-blocking fullback on just three snaps in the game.
The Patriots' season totals reflect that a fifth defensive back has starter-like value when a team is in sub 65.4 percent of the time.
Patriots' total penalties: 67
Patriots' total accepted penalties: 58 (fewest in NFL)
Ravens' total accepted penalties: 97 (tied for ninth most in NFL)
NFL team with fewest accepted penalties: Patriots (Dolphins, with 59, have second fewest)
NFL team with most accepted penalties: Seahawks (112), Buccaneers (110), Rams (104), Broncos (103) and Texans (103) next on the list.
Most frequent Patriots penalty: Offensive holding (12), false start (10), defensive holding (6), defensive pass interference (6).
Key stat: Patriots have had two games without a penalty this year and one game with just one.
Most penalized Patriots: G Logan Mankins (7), CB Aqib Talib (7); CB Kyle Arrington (3), G Marcus Cannon (3), G Dan Connolly (3) WR Julian Edelman (3), DE Chandler Jones (3), LT Nate Solder (3).
Summary: One thing that stood out from an NFL perspective is that arguably the league's best team, the Seahawks, have the most penalties. The Broncos, who would be the AFC's top seed if the season ended today, are tied for the fourth-most with 103. So while the Patriots obviously prefer to be at the opposite end of the spectrum, the success of heavily-penalized teams like Seattle and Denver also can't be overlooked. ... The lone penalty called against the Patriots last Sunday in Miami was on linebacker Dane Fletcher for pass interference. It was Fletcher's first penalty of the season. ... The Dolphins had been the NFL's least penalized team entering the game, but the Patriots overtook them for the top spot.
Catch up then.
"I do believe there was a foul on the play [even though it wasn’t called]. The crown of Garvin’s helmet made contact with the chin/neck area, so yes, I believe a penalty should have been called. If Garvin used his shoulder and lowered his target area, that would have been a legal block.
"A part of me believes that if you're on the field you should be subject to the same risks as every other player. However, I recognize how the game is progressing with player safety and how that is so important for the future of the NFL.
"Thus, what I think should happen is this: Specialists should be required to wear a different color jersey – a neutral color – and players will know that certain color jersey can’t be touched. Wearing that jersey, specialists then surrender their right to participate in the down once their act is executed. So, for example, after Huber punts the ball he has no right to make a tackle, he’s eliminated from the play.
"Blandino is right – these players are defenseless throughout the down. I played with kicker Adam Vinatieri and saw him run down Herschel Walker, but it’s rare for a kicker to have that type of toughness. Sure, you see some punters and kickers making tackles. Usually they are the last line of defense. It can be argued that even when they do make the tackle it looks awkward and they are still putting themselves at risk. The best way to protect them is to take them out of the equation completely and introduce the neutral jersey.
"All players know the neutral jersey because it’s used across the NFL in practices. You see it with quarterbacks or players coming back from an injury, they come out wearing a red jersey and there is a different tempo used for that player. On plays where there is potential for a high-impact collision, other players are trained to yield to that jersey. So it’s already in the psyche of players because it’s used around the league in practices. It now needs to be used in game situations, protecting specialists from violent collisions against linebackers, defensive ends, fullbacks and others who are trying to keep their own jobs by making crushing blocks that often injure or end seasons for specialists."
Rookie receiver Josh Boyce also missed Wednesday's practice with a right ankle injury. He suffered the injury late in Week 15, being replaced by veteran Austin Collie.
Rookie receivers Aaron Dobson (foot) and Kenbrell Thompkins (hip), who have combined to miss five straight games between them, were both limited in practice.
A total of 13 Patriots, including quarterback Tom Brady (right shoulder), linebacker Brandon Spikes (knee) and cornerbacks Aqib Talib (hip), Alfonzo Dennard (knee/shoulder) and Kyle Arrington (groin), were listed as limited.
With the uncertain status of starting left tackle Nate Solder (head injury, did not practice), one of the top storylines leading up to Sunday's game will be how the Patriots potentially fill that void.
"I don't know what our plan is this week. We have a bunch of different options," Mankins said, adding that he practiced at left guard and left tackle Wednesday.
As for his emergency work at left tackle in the fourth quarter of Sunday's loss to the Dolphins, the 6-foot-4, 308-pound Mankins said: "I always watched Matt Light for all those years and we're kind of the same size, so I figure when I'm out there I should try to do what he did."
The Ravens have two excellent edge rushers in Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. It could end up being Mankins' responsibility to block them if he kicks outside.
"I've lined up across from those guys a bunch of times, but usually they're always on the tackle," he said. "They've both played in this league a long time and I've seen them on film tons of times. They're both powerful guys."
2. Vereen prepares for a physical test ... and extra attention: When running back Shane Vereen was asked what stands out to him about the Ravens' defense, he used one word -- "physical."
Vereen also was asked about how the Dolphins devoted extra attention to him in last Sunday's 24-20 loss after his big performance against the Browns on Dec. 6.
"It was the first time it ever happened, really, to me," he said humbly. "You never really know what to expect. You have to think fast and be able to work regardless of the situation."
3. Hoomanawanui's return to the lineup: Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who returned to action Sunday for the first time since injuring his knee Nov. 18 at Carolina, was one of six players drawing a large media crowd (along with Mankins, Vereen, running back Brandon Bolden, special teams captain Matthew Slater and safety Steve Gregory).
He felt like the team had a good practice Wednesday inside the stadium and laughed when asked about his one-handed, 13-yard touchdown catch against the Dolphins. "It just kind of happened," said Hoomanawanui, who later revealed that he's ambidextrous.
Hoomanawanui played 71 of 82 snaps against the Dolphins as the No. 1 option at the position now that Rob Gronkowski is on season-ending injured reserve.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There's a chance -- perhaps best described as slim -- that the Patriots will earn the top overall seed in the AFC, providing them with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
It would call for some unlikely results in Weeks 16 or 17, including the Broncos falling to either the Texans or Raiders, who, if the season ended today, would have the first and third overall picks in the upcoming draft.
More likely, however, the Patriots won't finish atop the AFC's standings at the end of the regular season, meaning a path to Super Bowl XLVIII would likely include at least one road trip.
With just three road wins in seven tries this season, the Patriots have had their struggles in closing out games away from Gillette Stadium, where their record is unblemished.
They managed just six points against the Bengals, had unusual, penalty-related finishes against the Panthers and Jets, and most recently fell to the Dolphins in Week 15.
With the opportunity to clinch a fifth straight AFC East division title -- and, if other circumstances fall in their favor, at least the second seed in the conference -- the Patriots will look to climb over the road hump this Sunday in Baltimore.
Given the postseason implications, the Ravens' 6-1 record at home this season, the quality of the opponent and the difficulty of playing in front of what ranks among the more enthusiastic game-day crowds in the NFL, a Week 16 victory would qualify as the Patriots' best road win of the season.
"We need it. There's no bigger game than this one for us," quarterback Tom Brady said Wednesday. "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."
A few thoughts:
1. Cornerback position always good to have well-stocked. No. 1 corner Aqib Talib is scheduled for unrestricted free agency and there is no guarantee he'll be back. Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan -- Nos. 2-3-4 on the depth chart -- are under contract. As coach Bill Belichick once said, a team can never have enough corners. McShay nailed the pick of Chandler Jones for the Patriots in 2012, so we'll circle Dennard this year as a player on the radar.
2. Looking for more big bodies. If all things were equal, it makes sense to think the Patriots would like to bolster the line of scrimmage, particularly on defense. So I looked closer at McShay's mock for players with physical traits that might appeal to New England, and Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III qualified. Sounds like McShay has doubts he'd be around later in the first round. Didn't see a lot of big-bodied linemen in McShay's mock. Meanwhile, along the offensive line, it looks like a surplus at tackle, which wouldn't be a top need if Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are healthy and back in the mix.
3. Mallett against the top QBs. McShay's initial projection has four quarterbacks going within the first six picks, which sparked this thought: How does Patriots backup Ryan Mallett compare with those prospects? None of the prospects appear to be in the "Andrew Luck-sure thing" category. So thinking along the lines of personnel decision-makers of those teams, a case could be made to trade a draft pick (second or third-rounder) for someone like Mallett or Washington's Kirk Cousins and build that way. Mallett enters the final year of his contract and the possibility of a trade market for him -- which at this point is pure media speculation -- will be something to monitor. Had Mallett lit things up in the 2013 preseason, it would be easier to be more decisive with this thought.
"Probably not this year," he replied with a smile. "Maybe one of these years we'll get together for dinner or something."
While there's seemingly been no love lost between the pair of veterans, Brady shared high praise for Suggs as a player.
"He's a great player, he's always been a great player," Brady said. "He presents a lot of problems for an offensive line, an offense. He's big, he's rangy, he's powerful, he plays the runs and pass. It's really -- for a guy that size and how athletic he is, to play the way he does is amazing."
Sticking with the Christmas theme, Brady revealed where he does his holiday shopping this time of year.
"Amazon.com. I'm probably keeping them in business," he said before quipping. "It's hard to find your wife something on Amazon.com."
Brady had a final one-liner during his press conference as he was addressing how the Ravens have accounted for the loss of longtime defensive standouts Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
He highlighted veteran Daryl Smith as a key cog in replacing Lewis and also touched on their first-round pick, safety Matt Elam.
"Elam is [a] young player with all the skill and ability," he said. "He made some big plays for them, he's got some pretty key interceptions -- he made one last week.
"He's a really good player, they've got -- friggin' Baltimore," he continued lightheartedly. "They've always got a good defense."