Every week leading into the New England Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss go over the matchup. This week, it's a Sunday game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore (CBS, 4:25 p.m. ET):
Mike: Let's get right into it, Tedy. What do you see from this Ravens team?
Tedy: This is a different set of circumstances for them this year. Last season they struggled down the stretch -- losing 23-20 to the Steelers on Dec. 2, losing at Washington 31-28 and at Denver 34-17, before beating the Giants 33-14 and closing with a 23-17 loss at Cincinnati. But then they turned it on in the playoffs, parlaying it into a Super Bowl.
It's nothing like the present picture. They've won four in a row -- against the Jets, Steelers, Vikings and Lions. Now they've taken the role of the team late in the season that is building momentum toward a playoff push. Watching them play Monday night against the Lions, when they don't even score a touchdown but get six field goals from kicker Justin Tucker, the resolve of this team is evident. It's going to be tough for the Patriots to go on the road and get this victory.
Mike: Bill Belichick has made the point that he's focused mostly on the Ravens' most recent games, and that's something you are stressing as well. The NFL season is long and maybe no team has evolved as much as Baltimore.
Tedy: If you look at this team in terms of yearly production, you're looking at the wrong statistics. You have to look at these last four wins and how they were won. To beat Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving the way that they did, they looked like a championship team. On Monday night in Detroit, Tucker, their "Mr. Clutch" kicker, comes through. Every aspect of this team -- from kicker, to returner, to quarterback, to defensive coordinator -- these guys are gamers. It seems like when they need a play, someone on defense makes it, or Jacoby Jones makes a spectacular kickoff return. It's a resilient team, a mentally tough team, one the Patriots certainly need to worry about. After Monday night's game, in his news conference, coach John Harbaugh talked about his team, its mentality, and the belief it has.
There are certain teams that have to show me something before I'd consider them legitimate contenders. The Lions fall into that category, along with the Bengals and Cowboys. But the Ravens are certainly not in that category.
Mike: So what specifically has sparked their turnaround, from your viewpoint?
Tedy: Early struggles should have been anticipated. They started 2-2, losing to the Broncos 49-27 in the season-opening game, and some people wrote this team off. But just like the Patriots, there is something to be said about consistently good coaching. That's what they get from Harbaugh and I know that's what they get from defensive coordinator Dean Pees and offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. These coaches don't overreact to one loss and they don't go over the top after big wins. They always look at parts of their team that need to improve and players who need to get better.
Mike: Let's get into their offense a little bit. One of the big storylines in Baltimore is the status of quarterback Joe Flacco after mildly spraining his MCL in Monday night's win. He wore a brace in practice on Wednesday and was limited.
Tedy: Has Flacco's season been spectacular to this point? No. But he makes key throws when he has to. He avoided a scare Monday night when DeAndre Levy went low on him. On top of that, running back Ray Rice isn't doing what he used to do, but it's just like this team to get Rice or Bernard Pierce going late in the season, because they know how important the run game is. They split carries and whoever is playing well will get the bulk of the carries. I think they're struggling to get the ball to receiver Torrey Smith. Defenders are playing off him, letting him get the short stuff -- a hook or a slant -- but the games I've seen this year, I haven't seen the usual explosive plays from him.
But this gets back to the top-notch coaching that the Ravens benefit from. They don't care about egos. The Ravens have had some trouble running the ball, so they brought in Tyrod Taylor to run the Wildcat, with Flacco lined up as a wide receiver, in Week 12 against the Jets. That's when Flacco started to get irritated and said it resembled a high school offense. But these coaches don't care if you're Joe Flacco and if you signed a $120 million contract; he wasn't playing well, the running game was struggling, so they tried to make it more of an 11-on-11 running game and tried to get that going. These coaches will try things like that and it's something I have great respect for.
Mike: They traded for Jaguars left tackle Eugene Monroe, which has helped address one of their trouble spots along the offensive line. Still, you see breakdowns there at times.
Tedy: The offensive line is a unit that has had problems throughout the year. They are 29th rushing the ball and 32nd in rushing yards per play. They've also surrendered 42 sacks, which ranks as the sixth-highest total in the NFL. When you can't run the ball, and can't protect the passer, that's usually a bad formula. But with the Ravens, it's a bit deceiving because those are cumulative statistics that take into account the entire year. In this league, a big part of success is how you're playing in late November and into December.
Tedy: It's huge that Pitta is back after being on the injured reserve/designated to return list. Last year, they had gamers, especially on offense with Anquan Boldin -- their No. 1 guy in clutch situations, a battler. I've talked endlessly how much I respect Boldin's game. His offseason trade might have been the biggest loss for the Ravens, but No. 2 in terms of importance was Pitta. So that hurt Flacco's production. To have him back not only helps the passing game but also the running game, because there's a trickle-down effect of opponents having to pay more attention to the pass.
Mike: It also looks like they're playing some more three-receiver packages, which has created some opportunities for young receivers.
Tedy: I like this Marlon Brown kid, a rookie out of Georgia, an undrafted free agent. You can see he's really developed a trust with Flacco. Early on, there were some miscommunication issues, but you could see early in the season that Flacco, while waiting for him to develop, was giving him chances. He would throw passes to where there were signs of trust -- Brown wouldn't be out of his breaks but Flacco would be throwing the ball in his direction. That said, one thing you've missed in watching the Ravens lately is that Flacco hasn't been as effective down the field. He has one of the biggest arms in the league and that's an area we could see the Ravens attempt to attack the Patriots this week, judging by the poor safety play the Patriots have had.
Mike: When looking at how the Patriots might defend them, it's a unit that hung tough against the Dolphins but is obviously vulnerable with all of the personnel losses.
Tedy: The formula for the Patriots in the past has been to take away Smith over the top and be ready for the check-down to Rice in the passing game. If the Ravens can't get Jones, Brown or Smith over the top, they're coming down to Pitta or Rice.
It's an offense that doesn't blow your socks off when you look at it, in terms of running and passing. You look at it and say, 'They're OK.' But it's an offense, coaching staff and team that if you need a third-and-15 -- like they did against the Lions after Flacco was under pressure on first and second down -- they find a way to get it done.
Getting pressure in front of Flacco is very important, and the interior pressure from the Patriots hasn't been good of late. The goal when going against Flacco was always to get him off the spot, especially if he's going to be wearing a brace over the knee because of the MCL. He wants to be on that spot. Chandler Jones coming around the edge, and being too far up the field, it won't faze him to step up because he does that very well.
They're not going to let Smith beat them over the top. If the Patriots let Smith beat them over the top, that's all on the players. As a player, you can only be told something so many times -- the proper leverage in coverage as a linebacker or defensive back, taking the right angles to make tackles, what needs to be done on offense, how you need to execute an offensive game-plan. You know this Patriots coaching staff is doing their job and providing the knowledge to the players on what needs to be done. If it doesn't get done, and doesn't get executed, it's on the players. Like a fourth-and-5 against the Dolphins -- it's making that tackle. Or it's properly covering a running back in the red area. The knowledge is there, it's the right call, and then it comes down in the end to players making the play on the field in the crucial situations. The Ravens are starting to be that team they were last year -- making plays when they count.
Mike: Let's flip it to the defense. When Tom Brady was going through what impressed him about the Ravens this week, he said, "Friggin' Baltimore, they always have a good defense."
Tedy: People probably still remember that Week 1 game against the Broncos when Peyton Manning had his way with them. This is a top 10 defense in my weekly index and it has really come on lately. Dean Pees is a great defensive coordinator. I played for him and he's a coach who will stay the course and not panic over any situation. He has this team playing great situational defense – third in the NFL in third-down defense, fourth in the NFL in red-zone defense. They don't give up a lot of points, which puts them in the top 10.
Mike: Pees has overseen a unit that has undergone significant change.
Tedy: Think about the players they've had to replace -- Ray Lewis, Bernard Pollard, Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe. Those are Super Bowl starters who made big plays for these guys. General manager Ozzie Newsome brings in Elvis Dumervil and signs Daryl Smith from Jacksonville. Smith had been written off in Jacksonville after he had an injury last year and basically his whole 2012 was a wash. He's healthy now and has emerged as a leader of the defense.
Their top draft pick, safety Matt Elam of Florida, has done a good job for them. Cornerback Jimmy Smith seems to be coming into his own. On Monday night, they put him on Calvin Johnson and he did a good job of utilizing that big body. Now he has a different type of challenge against the Patriots' smaller and quicker receivers.
Terrell Suggs, a former defensive player of the year, is always there. With Dumervil on the other side, these are two pass-rushers who can really condense the edge. These are two of the best edge pass-rushers in the league; they are just waiting to wreck a game. If Logan Mankins is going to play left tackle again, it's a tough assignment. This isn't a good week to be thin on the offensive line. You're going against two top pass-rushers who are playing for a team that knows its season is on the line. If the Ravens win the next two games, they would clinch the AFC North.
Mike: When considering how the Patriots might approach the Ravens' defense, the first thing that stands out to me is meeting the physical challenge. Establishing the running game is critical and sticking with it in the red zone should be a consideration.
Tedy: You can move the ball on this defense, from the 20 to the 20. But they are so good when they get you to that third down, or in the red area, and they start being a little more aggressive. They know the field is shortening and they play great situational defense. They are a great situational team. It's not pretty by any means but you get them in a tight one, this is a team I'd put right against New England in terms of players, awareness, poise coaching and intelligence. When those situations come up, they know what to do. Having the Super Bowl victory in their back pocket, with John Harbaugh, it's a calming presence. It's almost like there's less pressure on you when you can think and relax and make the right decisions in critical situations because you've been in them before and you've done it.
Mike: Like any team, however, they do have their vulnerable spots. Where do you see them on defense?
Tedy: Well, after saying all that about the Ravens, there's one thing that seems almost a certainty for this game: It's going down to the wire. As well as this Ravens defense is playing from a situation-based standpoint, there have been lapses in performance and decision-making late in games.
Against the Packers late in the game, Matt Elam gave up a big pass to Jermichael Finley to seal the game. Against the Browns in Week 9, in the fourth quarter with 3:12 remaining, they couldn't get off the field as Jason Campbell escaped out of the pocket and converted on fourth down to lead to a field goal. And that's the ballgame. In an overtime loss to the Bears, Lardarius Webb gave up a long pass to set up a field goal. Against the Bengals, I know they won the game, but an A.J. Green Hail Mary was another blunder when safety James Ihedigbo tapped it up in the air.
I've been giving this team a lot of love throughout this breakdown, but these are two teams that have had successes and failures late in games. This game will probably be decided inside of five minutes left in the fourth quarter. It could be one play that defines this game. Mistakes will be made in the first 3½ quarters, an equal number of plays will be made in the first 3½ quarters, but it will come down to which coaching staff and which group of players make the calls and/or plays to win the game.
Mike: As we saw last week, special teams often play a major factor in the outcome, so let's not overlook it here, either.
Tedy: Special teams-wise for the Ravens, what else needs to be said besides Jacoby Jones? The forecast calls for thundershowers and 70 degrees, but it is getting to be mid-to-late December. As big of a leg as Stephen Gostkowski has, the chances of his kickoffs being shorter and shorter as the year goes on are high. There's wind, the ball is a little harder and doesn't travel as well, it creates a situation where Jones might get the ball 2 yards deep in the end zone or at the goal line, and he's taking it out. Those guaranteed touchbacks aren't as much of a sure thing. Sometimes your kickoff coverage team can get complacent and used to the kicker kicking it into the end zone. I don't think you'll have any complacency this week knowing that Jones is back there. But that's another matchup to watch.
Mike: I had been riding a hot streak picking the Patriots until last week, and now I think this is a tough spot for them. It's not a good week to possibly be playing musical chairs along the offensive line. Ravens 23, Patriots 20.
Tedy: Beware the teams in December that start gathering momentum and playing good football. I think this Ravens team is exactly that. One thing is for sure, both of these teams will be well-prepared and this game will be decided in the fourth quarter. The Ravens have a few more playmakers than the Patriots and I think that will be the difference. Dumervil or Suggs will make the play to end a fourth-quarter drive to win the game over the Patriots. Ravens 27, Patriots 21.