After Week 3 either the Patriots or Ravens will have a losing record, unfamiliar territory for both teams.
The Patriots haven’t had a losing record since 2003, a season-opening 31-0 loss to the Bills days after releasing safety Lawyer Milloy -- cue images of big Sam Adams returning an interception for a touchdown. Similarly, the Ravens haven’t had a losing record since being 2-3 in 2008. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Patriots have the longest active streak of games played without a losing record (145) and the Ravens have the second longest (61). Neither of these teams will need a history lesson about the other after last year’s AFC Championship Game.
Here are three areas to watch for when these heavyweights clash Sunday night in Baltimore:
1. Not surprisingly, Ray Rice is near the top of running back leaderboards again this season. Among 37 running backs with at least 20 touches this season, Rice ranks fourth with 245 yards from scrimmage (behind C.J. Spiller, Reggie Bush and Stevan Ridley) and second with a 7.0-yards per touch average. Only Ridley (18) and LeSean McCoy (14) have amassed more total first downs than Rice (13), and a lot of the credit should go to Rice’s offensive line. Rice has averaged a league-best 5.3 yards before contact per rush, a reflection of line play as much as Rice’s ability to find holes. The Patriots’ defense has been much better at containing Rice in their last two meetings, with the 2011 AFC Championship game being the first time the Patriots had held Rice to fewer than 100 total yards of offense. Bill Belichick has made a concerted effort to slow Rice and make Joe Flacco beat the Patriots, priorities that are unlikely to change Sunday night.
2. So what about Joe Flacco? Inconsistency still seems to be the lone constant for Flacco, even on a week-to-week basis. Flacco opened the season by shredding the Bengals, with a 95.1 Total QBR that ranked third best of any Week 1 quarterback. A week later, Flacco’s 24.6 Total QBR against the Eagles was sixth worst among qualifiers. Flacco’s inconsistency as compared to the threat of Rice sparked the shift in the Patriots' defensive strategy, which is reflected in the splits from the four meetings between the teams. As the Patriots’ defense focused on Rice more, Flacco had more opportunities to throw the ball. Flacco averaged seven more attempts in their last two meetings than in the first two, and on Sunday night Flacco should get his chances to throw some more. How effective he is will go a long way toward determining a winner.
3. The Ravens’ pass defense has long been the team’s calling card, between a fierce pass rush and stellar secondary play. Taking away the deep ball was an effective hallmark of Baltimore’s defense. The Ravens allowed a 40.1 completion percentage and 10.6 yards per attempt on throws at least 15 yards downfield from 2010-11, but their numbers have jumped this year. They have the eighth-worst yards-per-attempt allowed on throws at least 15 yards downfield this season and have allowed a 61.1 completion percentage, fifth worst in the NFL. The Ravens’ pass rush has been adequate without Terrell Suggs, recording six sacks through two games to rank sixth in the league. Generally speaking, Suggs is not easy to replace. Since 2008, the Ravens have averaged one sack every 16.4 dropbacks with Suggs on the field, and one every 25.6 dropbacks without Suggs.