NFL Preview - New England (10-4) at Baltimore (8-6)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens have played their fair share of high-stakes games against each other.
This Sunday's meeting at M&T Bank Stadium won't be on par with some of their earlier encounters, but there is still plenty on the line as the Patriots and Ravens do battle.
These two clubs have met in each of the last two AFC Championship Games, both in Foxboro, with New England taking a 23-20 victory in 2011 before Baltimore got its revenge a season later en route to a Super Bowl victory.
In between, the Ravens picked up a 31-30 victory in Baltimore during the 2012 regular season, New England's first regular-season loss to the Ravens in seven meetings.
In that Sept. 23, 2012 meeting, the Ravens came back from nine points down in the fourth quarter, winning on Justin Tuck's 27-yard field goal as time expired.
"They've been great games," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said this week of the rivalry. "It's always a big challenge playing the Patriots. They are very, very well-coached -- that goes without saying -- across the board."
You could argue that Baltimore has gotten some good coaching too, with Harbaugh having led the franchise to the playoffs in each of his first five seasons as head coach.
The Ravens (8-6) can make it six in a row on Sunday with a victory and losses by Miami and San Diego.
The 10-4 Patriots are also closing in on a playoff spot, which they could clinch with a loss by Cincinnati regardless of the outcome of this game.
However, New England can clinch its fifth straight AFC East title with a victory or loss by 8-6 Miami and can secure a first-round bye with a win and losses by the Bengals and Indianapolis Colts.
New England had a chance to lock up its 15th playoff appearance in 20 seasons last Sunday, but was defeated 24-20 by Miami.
Tom Brady threw for 364 yards and two touchdowns, but was twice thwarted by the Dolphins' Michael Thomas in a bid for a come-from-behind win. He saw the Miami safety break up a possible touchdown catch before picking off Brady's next attempt with two seconds left in the game.
"We had plenty of chances all day. We make some good plays and then we make plenty of (expletive) plays. Thank you," Brady said before ending his postgame press conference after just two questions.
Once again without tight end Rob Gronkowski, this time due to a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee, the Patriots saw wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola both go over 130 yards receiving. Edelman matched a personal best with 13 catches for a career-high 139 yards.
Still, New England lost for only the second time in its past 19 games in December and prevented the club from moving into a tie with Denver for the top seed in the AFC.
"I don't really know or care anything about that," said Pats coach Bill Belichick. "We just got to win the game were playing this week against Baltimore. That's all we're concerned about. I don't care about the rest of it. There's nothing we can do about it."
Baltimore is looking to get control of its playoff chances and has won four straight to move within a game of Cincinnati for first place in the AFC North.
The Bengals host the Minnesota Vikings this weekend before closing the regular season at home versus the Ravens. Baltimore has already beaten Cincinnati once this season.
The Ravens kept their winning streak going with an 18-16 win over the Detroit Lions as Justin Tucker capped a record day with a 61-yard field goal with 38 seconds to play.
"I definitely felt like I got a lot of leg into it, but it jumped up so high I thought I might have gotten under it," Tucker said of the boot.
Tucker's longest field goal in franchise history was his sixth of the game, another team record, and Joe Flacco passed for 222 yards.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
While Flacco didn't find the end zone, he also didn't turn the ball over and is 40 yards shy of becoming the first Raven with five straight 3,500-yard passing seasons.
Baltimore did get a scare when Flacco got hit just below the knee during the fourth quarter. He limped to the sidelines after the series was over, but did not miss any time and said he was at full strength the rest of the game.
Flacco was fitted for a brace on his right knee and limited in practice on Wednesday, but Harbaugh said he anticipates his quarterback will play.
"The brace isn't a big deal," said Flacco, who will wear the brace on Sunday. "It just is what it is, and hopefully it will prevent anything really crazy from happening if I happen to get hit on it again."
While Flacco is hobbled physically, Brady did appear to be frustrated mentally after Sunday's loss, bolting his media session rather quickly following the disappointing loss.
"Putting Sunday behind us is important and moving onto this week. There's nothing really from the last game that's going to help us this week," Brady said on Wednesday.
The Patriots quarterback did pass John Elway for fifth in NFL history with 4,150 completions and his 4,049 passing yards put him over the 4,000-yard mark for the sixth time in his career. He joins Dan Marino (6), Brett Favre (6), Drew Brees (8) and Peyton Manning (13) as the only players to have at least five seasons with 4,000 passing yards.
Brady remained one win shy of tying Marino for fourth on the league's all-time wins list for a starting quarterback. Marino had 147.
Edelman has been Brady's favorite target this season with 89 catches for 914 yards and six touchdowns.
Baltimore cornerback Jimmy Smith will try to build off his recent performance when he held dangerous Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson to six catches for 98 yards while keeping him out of the end zone.
"Jimmy, I think from what I saw, played on-top, square football," said Harbaugh. "He kept his eyes were they were supposed to be whether it was man or zone and he played the ball extremely well downfield. He was physical, of course. He played just really, really well."
Flacco has thrown for 1,213 yards with 10 touchdowns and two picks in his last four versus New England, including the two championship games. That is an impressive stretch, one that Pats defensive end Chandler Jones will try to disrupt.
Jones picked up a sack versus Miami to give him 11 1/2 on the season, the most by a Patriots player since Mike Vrabel had 12 1/2 in 2007. He is also the brother of Baltimore defensive tackle Arthur Jones, an interesting wrinkle in the rivalry.
""This is another game on the schedule that we have to win," said Chandler Jones. "Our goal every week is just to win this game. We're not talking about last year, but just this year. We're just moving forward and just being consistent and winning."
Harbaugh should feel comfortable sending Tucker out on the field given he has the league's longest active streak of field goals made with 33. That is just three shy of Matt Stover's franchise record and he has connected on 15 field goals in his last four games.
Tucker was good from all points on the field on Monday night, becoming the first kicker in NFL history to hit on attempts from the 20-, 30-, 40-, 50- and 60-yard range in a game.
The Ravens on the verge of missing out on the playoffs earlier this season, but have countered a three-game losing streak by winning five of six. Four of those wins have come by three points or fewer and the lone loss was a 23-20 game in overtime at Chicago.
"We've had a lot of practice at it with close games. I think we have had 11 close games, maybe. Eleven of them so far this year. That's what the National Football League is," noted Harbaugh.
That should have the Ravens ready for a battle this weekend as they face a Patriots team that is 3-4 on the road this season.
"We need it. There's no bigger game than this one for us. We have to put everything we can into it. It's a very important game," said Brady.
The Pats would probably feel better about this game if it were at home and going up against a Ravens defense that is ranked ninth in football will only make things tougher. So will the possible loss of tackle Nate Solder to a concussion suffered last weekend.
That could allow linebacker Terrell Suggs and company to prevent this game from turning into a shootout that would favor the Pats.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 23, Patriots 20
12/19 16:07:53 ET