NFL Preview - Baltimore (4-1) at New England (3-1)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - After an eventful bye week, the drama will continue for the New England Patriots this Sunday as they look to exact revenge for their most recent playoff failure. The Baltimore Ravens will be the team visiting Gillette Stadium for Week 6, and John Harbaugh's team will be sure to note the significant changes that have altered New England's makeup of late.
The Patriots waved goodbye to future NFL Hall of Famer Randy Moss soon after their 41-14 Monday night win over the Miami Dolphins in Week 4, a game that saw the mercurial receiver fail to log a catch for just the fifth time in his star-studded career. Moss was shipped back to his former team, the Minnesota Vikings, with his vocal unhappiness over the state of his contract likely helping to hasten his exit from New England after three-plus highly memorable seasons. The wideout logged 259 receptions for 3,904 yards and a whopping 50 touchdowns in just 51 games as a Patriot, but his attitude and effort had become a hot-button topic locally.
Roughly a week later, New England brought back former Pats Super Bowl hero Deion Branch in a trade with Seattle, four years after they traded the then- disgruntled wideout to the Seahawks.
Branch lacks Moss' star quality and credentials, but does have two Super Bowl rings as a Patriot and was MVP of the team's Super Bowl XXXIX win over the Eagles for a 11-catch, 133-yard performance.
The former second-round pick of New England will join a club that is trying to keep the pressure on the first-place Jets in the AFC East, as they sit just a half-game back of New York as Week 6 commences.
To make room for Branch, the team placed tackle Nick Kaczur (back) on season- ending injured reserve with an injury suffered in the preseason.
The Ravens, who prevailed (33-14) in a 2009 AFC Wild Card matchup in what was the first-ever home playoff loss for New England during the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era, have only built on that success in 2010.
Baltimore took over sole possession of first place in the AFC North with last week's 31-17 win over the Denver Broncos.
The Ravens built a 17-0 second-quarter lead and never looked back, with Ray Rice (27 carries, 133 yards, 2 TD) and Willis McGahee (10 carries, 67 yards, 1 TD) leading a 233-yard ground assault and the defense helping to keep the big plays from the high-flying Denver passing game to a minimum.
Denver's Kyle Orton threw for 314 yards and two touchdowns in the loss, but the Ravens shut down the Broncos running game (13 carries, 39 yards) for the entire afternoon.
The victory helped the Ravens open up a half-game lead on the idle Pittsburgh Steelers (3-1), and Baltimore is now two ahead of disappointing Cincinnati (2-3), which handed the Ravens their lone loss back in Week 2.
The Patriots lead the all-time regular season series with the Ravens, 5-0, winning home matchups with Baltimore in 1999, 2004, and 2009 and taking road decisions in 1996 and 2007. The most recent regular season matchup between the teams took place in Week 4 of last season, when New England was a 27-21 home winner in a game that marked the Ravens' first loss following a 3-0 start.
As mentioned, the teams' most recent meeting was in the 2009 postseason, when the Ravens routed the Patriots, 33-14, in an AFC Wild Card playoff from Gillette Stadium. The result marked the first home playoff loss for New England during the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era.
Belichick is 3-1 against the Ravens. Belichick, who grew up in Annapolis, MD, got his first NFL job as an assistant with the Baltimore Colts in 1975. The Ravens' Harbaugh is 1-1 against both Belichick and the Patriots as a head coach.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
After several weeks of leading with the passing game, it was the rushing attack that ruled the day in the Ravens' win over the Broncos last Sunday. New England will certainly be expecting to see a run-first approach, after the Ravens gutted the Pats for 234 ground yards in this past January's playoff game. Rice (363 rushing yards, 2 TD, 15 receptions) had 159 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries in that contest, while McGahee (143 rushing yards, 3 TD) added 62 yards and a score on 20 totes. The Baltimore receiving corps has changed drastically since the Patriots last saw it, with veterans Anquan Boldin (28 receptions, 3 TD) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (7 receptions, 1 TD) now complementing Derrick Mason (16 receptions, 1 TD), and rookie tight ends Ed Dickson (2 receptions) and Dennis Pitta (1 reception) joining the fray along with mainstay Todd Heap (18 receptions). Quarterback Joe Flacco (1116 passing yards, 5 TD, 6 INT) was just 4-of-10 passing in the playoff game a year ago, but threw for 264 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season meeting at New England last season. Flacco has been sacked five times this season. The Ravens are a league-worst 0- for-3 on fourth-down conversions.
The Ravens will have to keep the big mistakes to a minimum, but should be able to move the ball with relative ease against a New England defense that is last in the NFL in opponents' third-down percentage (54.7), last in opponents' completion percentage (69.1), and ranks in the bottom half of the league against both the pass and run. The Pats made a living off of big defensive plays in the win over Miami, with linebacker Rob Ninkovich (17 tackles, 2 INT, 1 sack) coming up with a pair of interceptions and a sack, and safety Patrick Chung (33 tackles, 2 INT) having a monster game with an INT return for a touchdown to go along with a pair of blocked kicks. The run-stopping group, which limited Ronnie Brown to 27 yards on 11 carries in the victory, was paced by 16 tackles for inside linebacker Jerod Mayo (42 tackles, 1 sack). Nose tackle Vince Wilfork (10 tackles) logged three tackles in the win. On the back end, Chung will be joined by other youngsters like cornerback Kyle Arrington (11 tackles), who posted seven stops in Miami. Lineman Gerard Warren (5 tackles) leads New England in sacks with two.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
All eyes will be on the New England offense, in particular the receiving corps, after the oft-dominating presence of Moss was removed from the lineup. The trade of the veteran should spell more reps for young players like Brandon Tate (11 receptions) and Julian Edelman (4 receptions), while Branch (13 receptions, 1 TD with Seattle) joins the veteran end of the wideout spectrum along with Wes Welker (26 receptions, 3 TD). Tate is tied for the league lead in kickoff returns for touchdowns (2), and will try to translate those dazzling efforts to the offense. Tight ends Aaron Hernandez (18 receptions) and Rob Gronkowski (6 receptions, 2 TD) could also see more targets from Tom Brady following Moss' defection. Brady (911 passing yards, 9 TD, 2 INT) leads the NFL in passer rating (109.0) as Week 6 begins, but could have things tough against a Ravens 'D' that picked him off three times in the January playoff game. The seemingly always-spinning New England rushing wheel seems to have landed on BenJarvus Green-Ellis (215 rushing yards, 2 TD), who has 16 carries in each of his last two outings. The Patriots are No. 1 in the league in scoring offense (32.8 points per game) and third-down conversion percentage (55.3).
The Baltimore defense has continued its general toughness, allowing an NFL-low 26.6 percent of third-downs to be converted and ranking Top 10 in the league against both the pass and run, though the team has gone begging in the big-play department. Somewhat shockingly, Baltimore is tied for last in the league in turnovers forced (3) and interceptions recorded (1), with the only pick coming from linebacker Ray Lewis (36 tackles, 1 sack) late in the win over Pittsburgh two weeks ago. A secondary that is looking for its first INT of 2010 should have its hands full with the New England receiving corps this week, even in the absence of Moss. Fabian Washington (14 tackles) and Lardarius Webb (7 tackles) are the team's top corners, with safeties Dawan Landry (30 tackles, 1 sack) and Tom Zbikowski (15 tackles) offering help over the top. Terrell Suggs (23 tackles, 2.5 sacks) is the team's top sack man, and lineman Cory Redding (7 tackles) posted his first sack as a Raven last week. The run-stopping crew, led by Lewis and tackles Haloti Ngata (29 tackles, 2 sacks) and Kelly Gregg (19 tackles), will be seeking more good things after shutting down the Denver running game a week ago.
Those who were patient with Rice as he deferred touches to Flacco and the Ravens receivers over the first four games were rewarded last week, when he put together a performance that justified his Top-10 selection in fantasy drafts. You'll want to start him this week, and the same goes for Boldin, who has been the team's most reliable pass-catcher. The Baltimore defense, once a must- start, is now a question mark given the lack of turnovers. Chances are this group will start making big plays sooner rather than later, though.
Moss' departure would seem to have a positive fantasy effect on the numbers of all of New England's offensive principles other than Brady. Welker, Hernandez, and Green-Ellis in particular look like good starts until further notice. And while Brady isn't going to approach 50 touchdown passes with Moss now off the roster, he'll do enough good things to make you glad you started him.
The Ravens came to New England this past January and manhandled the Patriots, who were trucked by the Baltimore running game and made countless big errors on offense. It's almost impossible for the Pats to play as poorly here as they did that afternoon, but the unfortunate reality for New England is that the talent gap is wider than it was during that playoff contest. Baltimore is more dynamic offensively, while the New England defense might be the worst of the Belichick era. The Patriots offense will still score points, but isn't nearly as frightening with Moss now wearing a Vikings uniform. The Ravens rarely make things easy on themselves, especially on the road, but this is one they really ought to win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 21, Patriots 20
10/14 15:19:11 ET