Join the conversation every week as former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down New England's upcoming game. This week, the Ravens head to Foxborough.
Mike: Tedy, if you are an NFL fan, what a great weekend this is going to be. Jets-Saints. Packers-Vikings. Cowboys-Broncos. Steelers-Chargers. And, of course, the matchup we're talking about: Patriots-Ravens.
Mike: It seems like one of the more prevalent questions people have is if the Ravens are for real. Their wins came at home over the Chiefs and Browns, and on the road over the Chargers. The combined record of those teams is 2-7.
Tedy: I still believe the Ravens are one of the NFL's better teams. Yes, they played the Chiefs and Browns, two teams in the bottom half of the league right now. They also went to San Diego and won, and I know when I was with the Patriots, to go play in San Diego and get a victory was one of the toughest things to do. You're going from the East Coast to the West Coast, you have to get used to the time change, get everyone acclimated after a long flight and be ready to play. Ray Lewis finished that game with an exclamation point tackle. He was certainly for real.
Mike: Before we break down some of the keys in this matchup, any leftover Patriots thoughts from last week?
Tedy: We had harped on the Patriots' short-yardage problems and their inability to pick up a yard, which undermined their toughness. Well, they solved their problem last week. Sammy Morris up the middle. Brady with a quarterback sneak. Fourth-and-inches from their own 24-yard line, giving it to Morris and converting. I talked to players, and that was something coach Bill Belichick had mentioned during the week, that they need to be a better short-yardage team. This was a situation in which when he told them what he wanted done, and he backed up what he said with the calls he made.
Mike: In the big picture, Tedy, I'm wondering whether it's too early to say this Patriots-Ravens is a biggie when it comes to tiebreakers. I think back to last season and how the Patriots were 11-5 but weren't good enough for a playoff berth because the team had lost all tiebreakers. All their losses were to AFC teams -- Miami, San Diego, Indianapolis, the New York Jets and Pittsburgh -- and that really hurt them. I wonder whether Belichick will mention that point to the players.
Tedy: I don't think it's too early to think like that. They already have one AFC loss, to the Jets, and we see how competitive they are going to be. When it comes down to tiebreakers, those NFC victories don't mean anything. We learned that last season.
Patriots defense vs. Ravens offense
Tedy: Now with a year under his belt, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco looks like a more confident player. In addition, the offensive coaches are more confident in him. Their play calling has been a little more aggressive, and they are throwing the ball downfield more, taking shots for the end zone. It's not just "run the ball, run the ball, run the ball and don't mess it up." Now, it's "Joe can win the game for us." That's the progression they've had.
Mike: You often hear that Belichick does a great job of taking away what an opponent likes to do best. Last week was a good example, when the Patriots limited Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez to one catch. If I were projecting where Belichick would start this week, I still think it would be the running game. Ray Rice (192 yards, 38 carries) and Willis McGahee (190 yards, 32 carries) are a strong one-two punch, and that offensive line -- Jared Gaither, Ben Grubbs, Matt Birk, Chris Chester and Michael Oher -- is big and pretty physical.
Tedy: They can always resort to who they were. They know what has been successful in the past, and that's running the ball and playing great defense. If they get into a game like that, they still can play it. When I played, McGahee always was one of the toughest running backs to tackle because of how strong he was. Now you can see how much confidence the coaches have in Rice, as he is getting an equal amount of carries.
Mike: Next on my list would be taking away receiver Derrick Mason, a player the Patriots tried to sign in free agency in 2005. I think he might be one of the most underappreciated offensive players in the NFL over the past 13 seasons, and I can see why Belichick likes him -- he's tough and consistent. What are your thoughts on the Patriots' defense?
Tedy: They are sixth in the league in scoring defense. When you look at the Patriots' championship seasons -- '01, '03 and '04 -- the scoring defense was in the top five or right up there. This defense is doing the same thing as those defenses, keeping points off the board, less than 300 yards per game. They have lost so much, from retirements and trades, and I don't think you could ask much more of them.
Mike: One aspect that has helped is that they've been on the field for 148 plays. That's the second fewest in the league, a good reflection of their ability to get off the field on third down and of how the Patriots' offense is controlling the clock. I think safety Brandon McGowan has been a strong addition as one of their hardest hitters. Is there anything specifically surprising you with the defense?
Tedy: I don't want to say surprise, but I think they are finding out how versatile Gary Guyton is. He was an outside linebacker in the 4-3, and now he's an inside linebacker in the 4-3, and in two weeks, he has 17 tackles. I'm also noticing the versatility various players give the defense. The first play last week, they were in a 3-4 and Adalius Thomas was the "mike" linebacker. On the second play, they were in a 4-3 and Thomas was the outside linebacker. With the players they have, they can give offenses multiple looks in a game, from down to down. That can be extremely difficult for an offense to adjust to. I also think they are much better at covering man to man. I was in training camp with these guys, and every other day, we were working on man-to-man techniques. Running backs and tight ends on linebackers. Wide receivers against defensive backs. Who can cover whom? That type of work during training camp is the reason they've had success on third down, with offenses converting only 31.6 percent of the time. When it's third-and-5 or less, it's going to be man. Cover tight. You can't be off. They're a lot better in that area.
Mike: The defense has been a surprise story through three games, especially when considering some of the injury hits, like losing Jerod Mayo.
Tedy: They've been so resilient up to this point. The defensive coaches and coordinator Dean Pees have done a great job calling the right defenses at the right time. I guess the question is: Will they reach a breaking point? They lost Mayo. Now Vince Wilfork. Is this too much? Or can they continue to show that no matter who is in, they'll get the job done?
Patriots offense vs. Ravens defense
Tedy: The Patriots showed signs of it last week, and now they will have to stay consistent with running the football. They were much more balanced, with Billy O'Brien doing a great job calling the game. With Fred Taylor, the question is: How many carries can he withstand? So Laurence Maroney has to step up and be the guy everyone wants him to be. He has to be the guy who, when it's time for the team to give him the ball, he can say, "I can be tough and get whatever yards you need." In the NFL now, you see how it's mostly running back by committee. Even Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, with 59 carries, has a little relief behind him with Chester Taylor, who has 17 carries. So Morris, Maroney and Taylor -- all three of those guys are going to have to be pounding it on first and second down. Maroney is going to have to be there for the running game to be successful.
Mike: This is a tough week to keep the run game going. Instead of seeing Falcons Thomas Johnson and Trey Lewis on the defensive line, they'll see bigger players like Haloti Ngata, Trevor Pryce and Kelly Gregg. I bet the Patriots' offensive linemen already have taken note of that. And here's an amazing stat: The Ravens haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 38 games, dating to Dec. 10, 2006. Running backs have amassed 100 yards in a game 308 times over that span.
Tedy: Opponents are averaging just 51 rushing yards per game against them this season. My thought is that even though there might be problems running the ball, you still have to pound it. What that does is help with time of possession and keep their offense off the field. In turn, you keep the Ravens' defense on the field, they play more reps, and it could wear them down. That could give you a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter.
Mike: Another tough part of this matchup for the Patriots is in the red zone, where they are really struggling. The Patriots have four touchdowns in 13 trips, which ranks them 28th in the NFL. The Ravens' defense is tied for first in the NFL, surrendering just two touchdowns in eight red zone trips. They held the Chargers without a touchdown on five red zone trips.
Tedy: Stephen Gostkowski is tied for attempting the most field goals in the league, with 10. That's a sign of how they're not getting the ball in the end zone. If they're trotting Gotti out for three, four, five field goals, it's going to be a problem. For all the offseason defections they've had on defense, the biggest loss right now might be Jabar Gaffney. You can take away any receiver with double teams, or pop out and jam a Wes Welker. So it's that third receiver who will be the one who has to get open. Jab always made those plays. Tom and Jab had a great relationship. Right now, Tom and Joey Galloway are not on the same page, and that was evident by Tom's frustration on the sideline last week. Some thought he might have been frustrated with Sam Aiken, but I'd just say that Aiken is one of the best special teams players. That's his job. You can ask him to come in and run a route here or there and he can do it, but his main description is special teams. Right now, Galloway is not the answer. Is it possible he could end up being the answer? I don't know. I don't know because he had a lot of time up to this point, and if he doesn't get it by now, he might not get it all.
Mike: We also can't mention the Ravens without pointing out the presence of safety Ed Reed. Belichick called him one of the best he's ever seen, and Brady said he must always be aware of Reed's presence in a chess-match type of situation.
Looking back, Brady's emotions seemed to be bubbling over in that game last week against the Falcons. As his former teammate, did that catch your eye?
Tedy: Absolutely. I told my wife, Heidi, after the game, "Now he is back." I think he's experienced all the firsts he needed to experience. You need a few games to experience the full gamut. I remember from my comeback from the stroke, you have to have that first tackle, that first hit or the very first time that three 300-pounders are on top of you. You get through that and say, "OK, it's going to be all right." When I saw him, I think he was saying, "I'm ready to go, and I'm sick of you guys not being ready to go. Here I am. Join the party." I also think that's what makes Tom Brady who he is. It's the competitive fire.
Mike: Let's wrap this up, Tedy. One X factor that might be easy to overlook is punting and field goal kicking. I think this will be a very close game, which means the margin for error could be thin and field position will take on added importance. Ravens punter Sam Koch is one of the best in the NFL. As for the field goal kickers, the Patriots have to feel good about Gostkowski. Meanwhile, the Ravens are breaking in a new kicker, with Needham native Stephen Hauschka winning a competition to replace Matt Stover. In a close game, the presence of the kickers could be a key.
Tedy: My final thoughts would be that it looks like things are coming around for the Patriots. They're fixing their problems. Last week, they had just two penalties. They had 17 in the first two games. They previously had short-yardage problems against the Bills and Jets, but they rectified that against the Falcons. They had attempted 100 passes through two games and weren't running the ball. That's another problem they fixed. So as I look at it, the question is: Can they continue to build in that positive direction?
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.