W2W4: Five things for Patriots-Ravens

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
6:00
PM ET
There are some games that just have a certain feel to them -- a different feel from other games.

This Sunday's rematch of last year's AFC championship game has that feel.

Even if there wasn't so much at stake for both the Patriots and Ravens in Week 16, the buildup to this game would likely be intense. There's no love lost between these two teams, who have shared the field for some of the more memorable games in recent NFL seasons.

The fact that there are playoff implications for both sides makes the matchup even more intriguing. The Patriots can potentially clinch a top two seed in the AFC if things fall their way, or at the very least can sew up the AFC East division crown with a win.

The Ravens, meanwhile, can move closer to an AFC North title with a win, and a win combined with a Miami loss would ensure that they'll extend their NFL-best streak of seasons making it to the playoffs to six.

The Patriots are hopeful to become just the second team to beat the Ravens on their home turf this season, and if they are able to do so, it would be their best win away from Gillette Stadium in 2013.

With plenty to play for, here's a look at what we'll be watching for this Sunday.

1. Red zone offense. The Patriots have scored touchdowns on just 39 percent of their red zone trips in games that Rob Gronkowski has not played in this season. For the seven-game stretch that they had Gronk, that number ballooned to 69 percent. The Ravens happen to boast the league's best red zone defense and stymied the Patriots in the red zone last postseason, so converting their chances will be a tremendous key for the Patriots this weekend. The potential return of wide receiver Aaron Dobson, whose 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame makes him a difficult matchup in man coverage, would aid the offense in the red area.

2. Blindside protector. For the second consecutive week, Patriots starting left tackle Nate Solder is dealing with a concussion. He was able to play in Week 15, but ultimately left the game early after appearing to take a knee from a Dolphins player. While he hasn't been ruled out for Sunday, if he's unable to play, it'll be interesting to see how the Patriots opt to replace him. They kicked Logan Mankins out to left tackle last Sunday, inserting Josh Kline in at left guard. With a week of practice, the team could also opt to insert veteran Will Svitek at one of those spots if need be.

3. Kickers battle. It's not often that we highlight the kickers in advance of the games, but this Sunday features a pair that have had largely terrific seasons. Stephen Gostkowksi slipped up for his team last week but has still had clutch moments this season. Justin Tucker, the Ravens kicker, drilled six field goals Monday night, including a game winner from 61 yards. He's in line for potential postseason honors. Their strong legs shorten the field for an offense.

4. Slowing Rice. Ray Rice hasn't had nearly his best season in 2013; in fact, he's averaging just 3.1 yards per carry. Nonetheless, he's still a gifted running back whom the Patriots, who have had massive struggles stopping the run, must account for. While Rice is most often responsible for carrying the football, he's also a reliable pass catcher that will flare out of the backfield and make yards in open space. Coverage has been an area of struggle for Patriots linebackers this season, and containing Rice as a pass catcher will be no small chore.

5. Pressuring Flacco. The last time the Patriots played the Ravens, they didn't register a single hit on quarterback Joe Flacco. He largely had his way, working the middle of the field effectively by targeting tight end Dennis Pitta and wide receiver Anquan Boldin. Sacks have been an issue for Baltimore this season, and the Patriots need to find their way to Flacco early and often. The two individual matchups to watch will be Chandler Jones facing off against left tackle Eugene Monroe and Rob Ninkovich working to get around right tackle Michael Oher.
Field Yates has previous experience interning with the New England Patriots on both their coaching and scouting staffs. A graduate of Wesleyan University (CT), he is a regular contributor to ESPN Boston's Patriots coverage and ESPN Insider.

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