When the NFL schedule was released \in the spring, among the games that we were immediately drawn to was a Week 16 matchup between the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens, originally scheduled for prime time on Sunday night football.
The NFL recently opted to flex the game to the 4:25 p.m. ET, favoring a Chicago Bears-Philadelphia Eagles tilt for the prime-time slot, but that isn’t to say there isn’t substantial interest in this game.
Beyond the fact that these two have had several memorable clashes in recent seasons and played in the AFC Championship Game in January, both are once again in the thick of the AFC playoff picture.
The Patriots (10-4) are looking to clinch the AFC East title for the fifth straight season. They were unable to clinch against the Dolphins last week, but have another shot to do so on the road this Sunday.
Come Sunday afternoon in Baltimore, each team has a chance to put itself in even better position for the postseason.
Below is our weekly primer on getting to know the Ravens.
Record: 8-6 (2nd in AFC North)
Head coach: John Harbaugh (sixth season)
Offensive coordinator: David Caldwell
Defensive coordinator: Dean Pees
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, OFFENSE
1. Quarterback Joe Flacco. There was a time -- a brief one -- that Flacco was the NFL’s highest paid player, as he was inked to a long-term deal this offseason after taking home Super Bowl MVP honors in February. The former first-round pick has had an up-and-down season, as he entered Week 15 with 18 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, already five more than he has had in any previous season. Flacco has been hurt by a disappointing rushing attack and poor offensive line play at times, but he’s still capable of hurting a defense when he has time to stand tall in the pocket. One thing is for sure regarding Flacco: He has the arm strength to drive the ball down the field.
2. Running back Ray Rice. Rice’s production is way down this season. Entering Week 15 he was averaging just 3.0 yards per carry and had just one game with more than 100 rushing yards. But that’s not a reflection of a less-talented Rice -- he’s very much the same player -- as the offensive line has struggled to generate much room for him to run. As always, accounting for Rice as a receiver will be critical, as he’s again among the Ravens' leaders in receptions.
3. Wide receiver Torrey Smith. Leading up to last year’s AFC Championship Game, there was plenty of talk about defending the vertical passing game of the Ravens, led by the strong arm of Flacco and elite downfield speed of Smith. But Smith is more than just a run-down-the-field receiver, as his role and route tree seemingly has grown this season, as has his production. He’s already set career highs in catches and receiving yards and has established himself as one of the better young wide receivers in the AFC.
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, DEFENSE
1. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. After Ray Lewis retired this past offseason, one of the pressing questions facing the Ravens was who would absorb his leadership role on the field. In a recent interview on "SportsCenter," wide receiver Jacoby Jones pointed to Ngata as one of the players who has been a vocal presence. Beyond that, Ngata is among the most disruptive (and nearly immovable) interior defensive linemen in the league. The 29-year-old stands at 340 pounds; he’ll be sure to give the Patriots' interior line all it can handle on Sunday.
2. Defensive end/outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. Major injuries to both his upper and lower body limited Suggs during the 2012 season, as he finished with just 22 tackles and two sacks in eight games played. But he got healthy this past offseason and is back to his productive self, entering Week 15 with nine sacks. He’s on his way to the most tackles in a season during his career and is one of the tougher edge rushers to account for around the league.
3. Linebacker Daryl Smith. Filling the void created by Lewis’ retirement didn’t only mean finding new vocal leaders for the Ravens, it also meant a new defensive quarterback to man the middle of their defense. Enter Smith, a longtime Jaguars linebacker who had an injury-hampered 2012 season that made him a quieter commodity in free agency last offseason. He’s proven to be a terrific addition for Baltimore, as he’s already surpassed 100 tackles this season, the third time he’s done so in his career.
Other notes: The Ravens are a tough team at home, as they’ve won six of seven games there this season. ... 2013 marks the fifth straight season that the Patriots and Ravens have played at least one game against each other (including postseason). ... Outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, signed this offseason after several seasons in Denver, has delivered as a bookend edge rusher to complement Suggs. ... The Ravens traded left tackle Bryant McKinnie to the Dolphins earlier this season, turning to Eugene Monroe to handle left tackle duties. Monroe was acquired via trade from the Jaguars. ... Justin Tucker is among the best kickers in the league, as he hasn’t missed a field goal since Week 2.