Ravens will be measuring stick for Pats

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Much was learned about the New England Patriots two weeks ago in Miami. They showed resiliency and mental toughness against the Dolphins in a challenging environment, important ingredients for any team desiring to play deep into January.

Now it's time to find out even more.

Sunday's opponent -- the big, bad Baltimore Ravens -- will provide another measuring stick for what the Patriots are, and where they may ultimately be headed.

By most accounts, the Ravens are one of the elite teams in the NFL. If not at the top of the list, they are right there, with two of their victories coming on the road against the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers, who are also in that best-of-the-best category right now. "That says a lot right there," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.

A win over the Ravens would say a lot about Belichick's team, which makes this a classic barometer game.

Beat the Ravens and New England is in the discussion of the NFL's elite. Lose to them again at home and questions will linger as the Patriots prepare for another tough challenge next week in San Diego.

The Ravens won't be intimated coming into Gillette Stadium, where quarterback Tom Brady has won his past 22 regular-season starts, three shy of Brett Favre's record from his Green Bay days. And why would they? This was the same team that came on the road and smoked the Patriots 33-14 in last year's playoffs, pushing them all over the field.

"We got manhandled by a damn good team," Brady said Wednesday when reflecting on that bitter memory. "Everything we said we wanted to do, we didn't do. Penalties. Turnovers. We couldn't convert on third down, couldn't control the tempo of the game.

"I have a lot of respect for these guys," Brady continued. "They play really hard. They're well-coached. They have a very physical [line], a very emotional team. They play with energy and enthusiasm, and I think you have to match that. Once they get fired up, it's tough to calm them down."

While the Ravens have more weaponry on offense than last season, they are still defined by their defense. It's a unit that has developed a knack for rising up in critical situations -- such as in the red zone, where opponents have scored just four touchdowns in 12 opportunities this season, and on third down, where they lead the NFL in holding foes to a 26.6 percent conversion rate.

So this will be a case of strength on strength, as the Patriots' offense is lethal in its own right, leading the NFL on third down conversions with a 55.3 percent rate. While the Ravens have been impressive on defense through five games, they also haven't gone up against a passing attack like New England's.

Brady, who didn't deny that last year's playoff loss is serving as motivation for some players, sounded like he viewed the challenge as a measuring stick of situation for the Patriots' retooled offense.

"We've done some good things this year, but we haven't played a full 60-minute game yet," he said. "That's what it's going to take against these guys this week. There's no let up from this team. There's not one area where there is a glaring weakness. We have to compete out there, and I think the group of guys in this locker room is ready to do that."

Sunday will provide the first look at the Patriots' offense without Randy Moss, who played a receiver-high 81 percent of the snaps through four games. A steady diet of multiple tight end sets is expected, and the Patriots might focus more on a West Coast style when multiple receivers are on the field, including new acquisition Deion Branch. Without the deep threat of Moss, some view the Patriots as an attack that will "dink" and "dunk" down the field.

"If it's dink-and-dunk and score touchdowns, I'm fine with dinking and dunking," Brady said. "I don't care -- whatever it takes to get the ball in the end zone."

"It's hard to say," he added, when asked how the offense might change. "Deion [Branch] is here now and he has some different strengths than Randy. Randy can certainly do things well, but so can other guys. So we have to see what they can do well and if we can go out there and perform it."

All of which makes Sunday that much more compelling. A physical, no-nonsense team that plays with an edge, the Ravens figure to be the Patriots' toughest opponent to date.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.