Pick Your Poison
STOPPING RICE IS JOB NO. 1
Small in stature but with no shortage of talent, Ray Rice is the best player on a Ravens offense that is playing better now than it has since the start of the regular season.
Rice is the Ravens' workhorse, the player who sets the tempo on offense and the guy who they count on not only to run the football, but to catch passes and pass-protect. Simply put, he does it all.
But he's at his best with the ball in his hands on a backfield carry, and the Patriots have to find a way to slow down Rice this Sunday, something they were unable to do all the way back in Week 3.
While the Ravens showed against the Broncos last Saturday night that the vertical passing game is a lethal and scary component to their offense, it wouldn't exist without the threat of a running game to draw the defense toward the line of scrimmage. Quarterback Joe Flacco is at his best when he has time and space. Because the Ravens can establish balance between the running and passing game, defenses are unable to gamble on attacking Flacco and risk losing track of Rice.
The importance of Rice and the running game is reflected in the increased number of rushes by Baltimore since Jim Caldwell was implemented as the offensive coordinator. The Ravens have averaged 36.2 rushing plays per game under Caldwell's direction, up from just 25.8 with Cam Cameron calling plays.
The Ravens know their offense is at its best when charged by Rice and the running game (backup Bernard Pierce has emerged as a player as well), and the Patriots must find a way to keep Baltimore in check on the ground this Sunday.
FLACCO HAS BIG-PLAY ABILITY
Three years ago, the Baltimore Ravens ran 52 times against the Patriots in a lopsided wild card playoff win at Gillette Stadium. While running back Ray Rice's 83-yard touchdown run on the first play of the game is seared into the memories of Patriots fans, quarterback Joe Flacco went 4-for-10 passing for a brutal QB rating of 10.0.
Make no mistake, however, the biggest challenge for the Patriots this Sunday will be Flacco's arm. Unlike in 2009, the Patriots' run defense this season is stout. The longest rush they allowed on the season was 31 yards, second-best in the NFL. The chances of Rice scampering for such a big play as that 83-yarder seem slim this time around.
The Patriots have a middle-of-the-pack red zone defense -- 13th in the league -- but it always seems to come up with big stops when needed. Last week, the defense was able to keep the Houston Texans out of the end zone after Danieal Manning's 94-yard kickoff return to begin the game. Similarly, Rice could help the Ravens move the football, but as Bill Belichick said on Wednesday, it's points that matter the most, and the red zone defense will help prevent points.
What's more likely to produce touchdowns is Flacco and the deep ball. The Ravens are 7-0 in games this season when receiver Torrey Smith scores a touchdown, as he did in Week 3 against New England. The Patriots' pass defense has allowed fewer big plays as the season has progressed, but Smith and fellow receivers Anquan Boldin and Jacoby Jones all possess dangerous size and present matchup problems for the Patriots' defensive backs in the deep game.