One of the biggest games of the week features two of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL.
The Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco signed a six-year, $120.6 million contract just a few months after being named the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player. About seven weeks later, the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers agreed to a seven-year, $130.75 million deal.
Over the previous four seasons, Flacco and Rodgers are the only NFL quarterbacks to pass for at least 3,600 yards and 20 touchdowns each season while throwing 12 interceptions or fewer.
But the big-money contracts have been the only similarities between these two quarterbacks this season. Flacco has yet to break out because of inexperienced targets and a struggling offensive line. Rodgers, meanwhile, is on pace for another 5,000-yard passing season.
Will these trends continue for both quarterbacks this Sunday in Baltimore? Here's how Packers team reporter Rob Demovsky and Ravens team reporter Jamison Hensley see the game unfolding.
Jamison Hensley: Rob, it wasn't even 20 minutes after the Ravens had beaten the Dolphins and Terrell Suggs was already bringing up Rodgers' name. It's clear that he is already on the minds of the Ravens' defense, which has been riding the strength of its pass rush. Suggs is having a career year with seven sacks in five games and Elvis Dumervil has three sacks. Will the Ravens be able to get to Rodgers on Sunday?
Rob Demovsky: The Lions couldn't get to Rodgers last Sunday, but their pass rush typically comes from the interior. The Ravens, particularly with Suggs rushing from the outside, present an entirely different challenge. You better believe he will have Rodgers' attention. This might be one of those games in which he relies on a lot of short and intermediate routes to get the ball out of his hands quickly and take some pressure off his tackles. He trusts that his receivers will get yards after the catch if he gets them the ball quickly.
Are there signs Flacco and the Ravens' offense will get things rolling, or is this going to be an issue all season?
Hensley: There have been signs of life from the Ravens' running game, but as we saw in the playoffs, the Ravens will only go as far as Flacco takes them. His numbers -- 57.7 percent completion rate, five touchdowns, eight interceptions -- have been extremely disappointing, although it's not all his fault. If the Ravens want to get their offense rolling, they need the players around Flacco to step up. Flacco's wide receivers are inexperienced outside of Torrey Smith, and the Ravens' pass protection has been awful this season. Flacco has been sacked 14 times (only seven quarterbacks have been sacked more) and has been hit 18 times the past two weeks. Baltimore is hoping the addition of left tackle Eugene Monroe, who is expected to make his Ravens debut Sunday, will solidify Flacco's blind side.
It seems like the Ravens have caught a break with Clay Matthews being out. How will the Packers do in his absence?
Demovsky: Losing their $66 million linebacker is a blow, no question about it. He's one of only a couple of difference-makers the Packers have on defense. But they appear better equipped to play without Matthews than they were last season, when he missed four games with a hamstring injury. That's largely because of the emergence of Mike Neal, a former defensive end who converted to outside linebacker in the offseason. Neal had his best career game, with six tackles and a sack, on Sunday against the Lions. He gave Lions left tackle Riley Reiff all kinds of problems, so Monroe will have has hands full. The Packers also have seen some signs of life from last year's first-round pick, outside linebacker Nick Perry. He had his first career two-sack game against the Lions.
However, without Matthews, defensive coordinator Dom Capers might have to send more blitzers in order to pressure Flacco. How have the Ravens handled the blitz?
Hensley: The Ravens are having problems with any type of pressure this season, whether it's blitzes or four-man rushes. The problem has been the lack of productivity on first downs. The inability to consistently run the ball has put the Ravens in second-and-long and third-and-long too often, which makes it very predictable that the Ravens are going to have to throw the ball. Running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce are both averaging fewer than 3 yards per carry. Rice looked better last Sunday, but his longest run is 14 yards this season. The Ravens are going to remain committed to the run. Their hope is it starts paying off more in the form of big plays.
Speaking of running games, what's been the key to the Packers's ground game this season?
Demovsky: Coach Mike McCarthy said last week that he believes a running back who makes the right reads and decision is the key to the running game, so that would lead you to believe the improvement has come largely from the running back position. To be sure, rookie Eddie Lacy, who rushed for 99 yards against the Lions, is a big part of that. He's a much more powerful runner than they've had in recent years. However, when you consider that they've had two other running backs go over 100 yards -- James Starks with 132 against the Redskins in Week 2 and rookie Johnathan Franklin with 103 in Week 3 against the Bengals -- I'm not sure how you can't give props to the offensive line, too. That group has made major strides.
What kind of a run defense will the Packers be facing Sunday?
Hensley: It really depends on which run defense shows up for the Ravens. Two weeks ago, the Ravens gave up 203 yards rushing to the Buffalo Bills. Last Sunday, Baltimore held the Dolphins to 22 yards on the ground, which is the fourth-fewest rushing yards allowed in a game in Ravens' history. The Ravens were so dominant that Miami just abandoned the run game. You couldn't have two bigger extremes, but the Buffalo game appears to be a temporary lapse. Baltimore is strong up the middle with Haloti Ngata and Chris Canty and is tough on the edges with Suggs, who is an underrated run-stopper, and Courtney Upshaw. Inside linebacker Daryl Smith has been the biggest surprise of the defense this season with his ability to anticipate where the ball is going.
The Ravens' secondary, though, is the area of the defense that has struggled the most. The Ravens gave up three 40-yard passes to Miami's Ryan Tannehill. Out of all those talented wide receivers, who should the Ravens fear the most?
Demovsky: All three receivers are dangerous in their own way. Randall Cobb works from the slot and is perfect for that role. He runs those short-to-intermediate routes precisely, much the same way Greg Jennings and Donald Driver used to. Rodgers loves to hit Cobb on the run in the middle of the field, and that attracts a lot of attention from the safeties. That often means either Jordy Nelson or James Jones could have single coverage on the outside. Nelson works the sidelines like few I've seen. He's already made two catches this year where it didn't look like there was any way he'd be able to stay in bounds, yet he got both feet in before falling out of bounds. Jones is surprisingly effective going deep. For a guy who supposedly doesn't have top-end speed, he rarely gets caught from behind.
The Packers' run defense has made significant improvements over last season and currently rank fifth in the league in rushing yards allowed. How big of a test will Ray Rice be?
Hensley: Rice hasn't been the same playmaking running back. He hasn't broken a run longer than 14 yards. He's fumbled twice. Some of the blame can go on the offensive line failing to open holes. Rice has also been dealing with a hip injury the past two weeks. But the Ravens need big plays from Rice and it starts with him breaking tackles. There were signs of Rice bouncing back to form last Sunday in Miami. If the Ravens are going to keep up with the Packers on the scoreboard, they're going to need big plays from Rice.
What has been the biggest improvement in the Packers run defense?
Demovsky: The Packers got bigger across the front line with the return of defensive tackle Johnny Jolly from his three-year suspension. When Jolly last played for the Packers in 2009, they led the NFL in rushing defense. With Jolly back, defensive coordinator Dom Capers has used him along with Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji up front in obvious running situations to form a massive front in their 3-4 package. Matthews plays a big part in their run defense, too. He's an underrated run defender, so his absence could be a factor there, too.