Pats face defining moment

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There's a chance -- perhaps best described as slim -- that the Patriots will earn the top overall seed in the AFC, providing them with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

It would call for some unlikely results in Weeks 16 or 17, including the Broncos falling to either the Texans or Raiders, who, if the season ended today, would have the first and third overall picks in the upcoming draft.

More likely, however, the Patriots won't finish atop the AFC's standings at the end of the regular season, meaning a path to Super Bowl XLVIII would likely include at least one road trip.

With just three road wins in seven tries this season, the Patriots have had their struggles in closing out games away from Gillette Stadium, where their record is unblemished.

They managed just six points against the Bengals, had unusual, penalty-related finishes against the Panthers and Jets, and most recently fell to the Dolphins in Week 15.

With the opportunity to clinch a fifth straight AFC East division title -- and, if other circumstances fall in their favor, at least the second seed in the conference -- the Patriots will look to climb over the road hump this Sunday in Baltimore.

Given the postseason implications, the Ravens' 6-1 record at home this season, the quality of the opponent and the difficulty of playing in front of what ranks among the more enthusiastic game-day crowds in the NFL, a Week 16 victory would qualify as the Patriots' best road win of the season.

"We need it. There's no bigger game than this one for us," quarterback Tom Brady said Wednesday. "We have to put everything we can into it. It's a very important game. As the season goes on, each of these games gets more and more important. We know how important this one is to try to win the division."

But beyond the divisional implications, Sunday provides an opportunity for the Patriots to show themselves that they can win in an adverse setting against a quality opponent, something they may well have to do in the near future when the postseason rolls around.

"We've struggled a little bit throughout the season on the road, so it's definitely been a big point [of emphasis] up to this point," tight end Michael Hoomanawanui said of preparing for the game in Baltimore. "With two games left, they're all big, so that's how we're approaching it."

The Ravens are winners of four straight and have given the Patriots fits in recent matchups, led by last year's AFC Championship game when they traveled to Gillette Stadium and handed the Patriots just their second home loss of that season.

Beating them is always tough, especially in their own yard.

In examining the difference between the Patriots at home versus on the road this season, the bigger discrepancy in performance has been on the offensive side of the ball.

The Patriots have averaged 29.5 points per game at home this season (skewed in part by a 55-point outburst against the Steelers), compared with just 22.3 on the road.

Defensively, they've surrendered just 20.7 points per game at home, down from 23.7 points per game on the road.

On Sunday, the Patriots will try to buck those road trends, and not just for the immediate implications a win would provide as it relates to clinching a playoff berth.

A win Sunday would serve as a vote of confidence for a team that has conceded it has a small margin for error this season, given all the injuries and other circumstances it has dealt with.

But it won't be easy.

"They look like the championship team that they are," Bill Belichick said of facing the Ravens. "It will be a big challenge for us down there in Baltimore."

If the Patriots can overcome that challenge, it will not only ensure a trip to the postseason, it will help to develop the mental edge that can play a pivotal role in playoff success.