Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week is Sunday night's road contest against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium (NBC, 8:20 p.m. ET):
Mike: A couple of notable personnel moves for the Patriots this week, starting with receiver Deion Branch returning and tight end Kellen Winslow signed. Tom Brady used the words stability, dependable and consistent in talking about Branch's return.
Tedy: This is a direct effect of the injury to tight end Aaron Hernandez. Offensive personnel groupings should be very different this week. I don't think Kellen Winslow can pick up this offense in a matter of days. It will take time. I see multiple receiver sets being utilized and the run game continuing to be emphasized.
Mike: One of the media-driven stories in recent weeks has been Wes Welker's evolving role with the team. Julian Edelman played more than Welker last week -- 75 snaps versus Welker's 63. Based on Welker's production from 2007 to 2011, that's been challenging for some to comprehend.
Tedy: I'm not sure what's going on, but I know this: Bill Belichick doesn't care what you've done in the past. He wants to know how you've looked in training camps, preseason, going up to that week's game. For Welker not to start, and for there to be no other issues like off-field problems or health, it has to be a performance thing. Maybe they see Edelman doing better in practice, and they want to see more of it.
Mike: Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Edelman has earned the right to play, while also maintaining that Welker will remain a big part of the attack.
Tedy: When he says that, I think you take that and that's all you really need to hear. Take all the conspiracy theories out of it; it's about earning playing time. That's what really makes this coaching staff so good. To be able to recognize a player who has earned the right to play, or keep his job, we can go all the way back to Tom Brady in 2001. I'll say this about Julian Edelman: Special teams, defense or offense, he's making something happen. When he catches the ball, he runs hard. Maybe that's what they're starting to see and now they're saying, "We want to see more of it."
Mike: Let's get into this Patriots-Ravens matchup. This is a tough spot for the Patriots, who own a 6-0 regular-season record against the Ravens, and are 1-1 in the playoffs. Of the eight games in the series, only two have been played in Baltimore. The Ravens are happy to be at home and they have some weapons on offense that concern the Patriots.
Tedy: Quarterback Joe Flacco has had a good couple weeks. He looks like he's steadily improved ever since he came into the league. The offense is starting to respond to him, and even the veterans on defense are starting to say publicly that he's the guy. They used to say, "Give Ray Rice the ball and don't mess up the game." That's not really where they are right now. Rice has always been a focal point of their offense and still is, but Flacco has won over that team.
Mike: The Ravens' offense looks more explosive than past years, and some different names are emerging. Their first play of the 2012 season went for a 52-yard gain to receiver Torrey Smith.
Tedy: Smith brings the speed element. Then you have to be prepared to fight Anquan Boldin, who doesn't have the speed to separate but has the savvy, and he's a very physical receiver. The Ravens also have Jacoby Jones, who made some plays last week. So they have weapons at receiver. On top of that, Flacco has targeted tight end Dennis Pitta 24 times over the first two games, so he's someone to watch.
Mike: Pitta was a fourth-round draft choice in 2010 out of Brigham Young, so he's part of the same draft class as Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez. Defensively for the Patriots, where does the responsibility for covering Pitta fall?
Tedy: Your outside linebackers at times will be on the tight end, safeties also in man-to-man coverage; that's something you have to account for. Another big thing is getting Flacco off the spot, which is the area 5 or 6 yards directly behind the center. That's where a quarterback like Flacco prefers to settle and deliver the ball. Vince Wilfork has to come up big. Just like he did in the AFC Championship Game last year, you put him over center Matt Birk or the left guard, who was Ben Grubbs last year, and you just drive him straight back and get in Flacco's lap. Mark Anderson was a direct benefactor of that approach at the defensive end position, cleaning up for a sack. That's the way you figure the Patriots will game-plan this, using their best player on defense, Wilfork. If you remember the AFC Championship Game last year, Wilfork played the 5 technique in the 3-4 defense because the Ravens are an off-tackle running team. The idea was to put your best player where the offense has a heavy tendency to run the ball.
Mike: Another aspect of note with the Ravens is the usage of the no-huddle offense. That's a little bit of a change for them. The offensive line isn't a strong suit.
Tedy: And building off what we saw last week against the Cardinals with cornerback Patrick Peterson in the Wildcat (what they call "Pat-Cat") -- last season in the first quarter of the AFC Championship Game, during the entire TV timeout at 12:49, the Ravens had backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor out on the field. They wanted to see how the Patriots would react to seeing that. When the cameras came back, and the timeout ended, Joe Flacco ran back out because I don't think the Ravens liked what they saw. But it's still there, and with them seeing the "Pat-Cat" formation, maybe they use that a little bit instead of just having it as a ploy.
Mike: Defensively for the Ravens, let's talk about how different things look without Terrell Suggs (Achilles injury).
Tedy: You're talking about the Defensive Player of the Year, so without that playmaking ability, that's a different look. But also, there is a different look at middle linebacker with Ray Lewis, who has dropped about 25 pounds. He really looks different on film, too. The last couple years, he was pushing 260, and when watching him, the thought would be, "Ray, you're getting a little big, maybe a little slower, this could be coming to an end." But it's a sign of a player who is probably the best linebacker in the history of the game saying, "I know what this league is turning into. I no longer have to thump on a guard or thump on a fullback for four quarters of a game. For me to last, what I have to do is cover and be a space player if I want to play every down. So I have to drop 25 pounds, ride the bike 40 miles every day, and change my body to change with the times." He looks a lot quicker, too. He's going into the line of scrimmage, coming back out, making plays, spinning. I saw him make a spin move against the Bengals and come out and tackle the running back. He made a play versus tight end Jermaine Gresham in coverage. The guy looks great, like the Ray Lewis of five years ago. The Patriots are going to have to deal with him.
Mike: Another matchup that has to concern the Patriots is defensive lineman Haloti Ngata. He can be disruptive, and given some of the struggles the line had against the Cardinals, this area bears watching.
Tedy: There is a way you block a guy like this, someone who is strong and athletic. When you try to directly block him, man-to-man, it's not going to happen. There isn't a player along the offensive line, even Logan Mankins, who can block Haloti Ngata right now on a consistent basis one-on-one. I'm saying that about Mankins because I believe he still has some recovery to undergo from that knee surgery he's barely six months removed from having. So you attack Ngata with angles. Let him come up the field a little bit, and then have tight end Rob Gronkowski attack him from the Y off position, the U position -- inside run, inside trap, the wham block, something like that. When you have a stud defensive lineman that's like that, who is tough to block one-on-one and even on the backside will escape that cut block, you have to attack him with angles. I think that's what they'll do.
Mike: The Patriots will be without Hernandez, and one of the strategy-based aspects of the game that figures to be interesting is how it changes the look of the offense. Do they stay with the two tight ends? Or will it be three receivers and one tight end?
Tedy: I don't think they will be caught off guard like they were last week, with Hernandez being such a unique, special player. The abilities he has can't be duplicated by any other player on the roster. Once you lose that guy, you can't just plug a guy in; you're scrapping the entire game plan that utilized his talents. I think they probably go in with a more traditional approach because you don't have that wild-card player in Hernandez you can use in various spots.
Mike: Lewis, Ngata and of course Ed Reed. Seems like that's the trio we touch on every year in this matchup; or at least, that's where the discussion begins. We know of Reed's greatness, so let's round it out and share some thoughts on something else that stands out to you about this Ravens club.
Tedy: This team can still lose its cool in critical moments. Already, last week after the game, they're complaining about officials. I think they sometimes worry
about things that don't really concern them as current players. Sometimes in the biggest of games, when things don't go their way, it can snowball for them. I'm still going to watch that. They have an emotional coach in John Harbaugh and emotional players. This team expects to do great things, and when it doesn't happen, it can be tough for an emotionally charged team to recover.
Mike: Special teams really hurt the Patriots in Sunday's loss. It's an area we shouldn't overlook any week, with last week serving as a reminder why, as the Cardinals' blocked punt was a big play in the game.
Tedy: Nate Ebner, the rookie from Ohio State, playing that wing position, that's a difficult task similar to playing left tackle and protecting your quarterback. Playing that with a left-footed punter who directionally punts, they're going to be punting up Ebner's back when they kick to the left, and he has to be stout. Having a left-footed punter, opponents are going to put their best rush guy there, and Ebner has to prove he can handle that job. He's a target now for the season. Opponents will look at him and say "You can get him." So we can go through the players to watch -- Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata, Ed Reed, Tom Brady, Wes Welker ... and yes, Nate Ebner.
Mike: I expect a much better effort from the Patriots. This should be an electric environment. Given the home-field advantage, and some of the shaky play we've seen from the Patriots' offense in recent weeks, the Ravens look like the pick. Both teams have been excellent after a loss -- the Patriots are 27-3 the week after (since 2003), and the Ravens are 13-0 since 2009. The Ravens have also won 11 in a row at home. That's a lot to overcome. Ravens 24, Patriots 20.
Tedy: The Patriots will be better after Thanksgiving than they are right now. They are still getting used to the way Josh McDaniels calls a game. Their offensive line needs more time to improve and Hernandez's injury is big. Couple that with the concerns on special teams and you have a recipe for a loss. I'm picking Baltimore. Ravens 27, Patriots 20.