We conclude our "exploring the lesser known" series with a look at an opponent that is far from a stranger to the Patriots: the Baltimore Ravens, the Super Bowl XLVII champions. The Patriots and Ravens have developed perhaps the best recent AFC rivalry, with the two sides squaring off in both regular and postseason games with major implications.
They'll meet in the penultimate week of the 2013 regular season, and if the weeks leading up to the December matchup play out how many expect, there could be seeding on the line when these two finally square off.
But it won't be the same Ravens team that the Patriots faced twice last season, as the defense has a much different feel with the departures of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger and others. Fortunately for Baltimore, general manager Ozzie Newsome had a plan he was able to execute in order to reload his defense, rather than rebuild it. It started with fortifying the front seven with additions such as Elvis Dumervil and Chris Canty, while the draft served as a vehicle to re-shape the secondary, starting with the selection of Florida safety Matt Elam with the last pick in the first round.
So while it won't be the same roster for the Ravens in 2013, this matchup looks to be one of the premier regular-season games.
Let's examine a challenge for the Patriots on either side of the ball.
Offense: It's been just four months since the Ravens upset the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, and many remember the way that Baltimore's offense was able to chew up yards via the middle of the field passing game. Talk throughout the week leading up to the game centered around the Patriots' focus on preventing vertical passes down the field, a task that was largely accomplished. Trouble was, Baltimore turned to its tight ends and veteran wideout Anquan Boldin instead, and the Patriots linebackers and safeties struggled to shadow them. Boldin is now a 49er but the Ravens tight end duo of Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson should be a focal point of the offense again this season. The Patriots will again need to be conscious of vertical target Torrey Smith, they'll just need to have a plan in place to contain the tight ends as well.
Defense: The Ravens' front seven gives an opposing offense a ton to handle. Quite literally. Based on projected lineups, the Ravens will have the heaviest front seven in all of football entering the 2013 season with a combined weight of 1,992 pounds (the Patriots, for comparison, check-in at 1,902 pounds). What makes the Ravens unique in their front seven is that the group not only includes capable run stuffers such as Haloti Ngata, but gifted rushers off the edge such as Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. The Patriots understand how physical the Ravens are as a team, and finding a way to neutralize or overpower the Ravens front seven will be critical in earning a road victory. The Patriots' offensive line can play a physical brand of football as well, and Week 16 might be one where Bill Belichick attempts to set the offensive tempo by establishing the run early.