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NFL Preview - Baltimore (3-0) at New England (2-1)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - In two of the wins posted during their impressive 3-0 start, the Baltimore Ravens have routed teams with ties to Bill Belichick.
On Sunday, when John Harbaugh's club takes the field at Gillette Stadium to face the New England Patriots in a battle of probable AFC contenders, they'll get to face the genuine article.
In Week 1, Baltimore outlasted a Kansas City team (38-24) constructed by general manager Scott Pioli, a former Belichick disciple who spent the past decade in the New England front office.
Then, after taking care of business in San Diego (31-26) the following Sunday, the Ravens last week routed the Cleveland Browns (34-3), coached by ex- Patriots coordinator Eric Mangini.
Needless to say, Belichick's team should present a far greater challenge than those put up by the venerable coach's underlings.
New England overcame a hard-fought loss at the Jets in Week 2 by out-muscling a good Atlanta Falcons team, 26-10 last Sunday.
After forcing their still-healing quarterback, Tom Brady, to put the football in the air 100 times during the team's 1-1 start, New England went to the ground a bit more often in the bouce-back victory.
Brady still threw the ball 42 times, but the work of a running game that churned up 165 yards undoubtedly eased the pressure when the future Hall of Famer did drop back to throw.
The biggest rushing hero for New England was veteran Fred Taylor, who had the first 100-yard day of his post-Jacksonville Jaguars career by rushing for 105 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries.
Brady did his part as well, throwing for 277 yards and a touchdown on 25-of-42 passing, and the defense held the potent Falcons attack to less than 300 yards.
The Ravens, meanwhile, continued their offensive assault with 479 yards of total offense, including a career-high 342 passing yards from Joe Flacco, while the defense had its best day of 2009 to date in the win over the Browns.
Baltimore outgained the Browns, 479-186, on the day, and forced quarterbacks Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson into a total of four interceptions.
On Sunday, the Ravens will be attempting to move to 4-0 for the first time since 2006, when they won their first four en route to a 13-3 finish.
The Patriots lead the all-time series with the Ravens, 4-0, winning home matchups with Baltimore in 1999 and 2004 and taking road decisions in 1996 and 2007. In the most recent matchup, a Monday night game in Week 13 of the '07 season, a New England team that would finish the regular season at 16-0 survived a 27-24 scare from the Ravens. Baltimore was a 24-3 loser when it last visited Gillette Stadium, in 2004, and has been outscored by a composite score of 44-6 in its two trips to New England. A Baltimore-based NFL team last defeated New England in the 1983 campaign, when the then-Baltimore Colts swept a home-and-home with the Patriots.
Belichick is 2-0 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' John Harbaugh will be meeting both Belichick and the Patriots for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Though it's a strange phenomenon for a team defined for so long by the quality of its defense, the Ravens come into Foxborough sporting the NFL's No. 2- ranked offense (430.3 yards per game), behind only the New Orleans Saints. Detractors will point to games against the lowly Chiefs and Browns as well as a banged-up Chargers defense in an effort to poke holes in those numbers, so Flacco (839 passing yards, 6 TD, 2 INT) will have to keep his foot on the gas against the Patriots. The second-year quarterback has thrown most often to a quartet of targets - wideouts Derrick Mason (12 receptions, 1 TD), Mark Clayton (9 receptions, 1 TD) and ex-Patriot Kelley Washington (12 receptions, 1 TD), along with tight end Todd Heap (10 receptions, 1 TD). While Flacco has reaped most of the headlines, running backs Willis McGahee (190 rushing yards, 6 receptions, 6 TD) and Ray Rice (192 rushing yards, 1 TD, 11 receptions) have been quietly effective as well. McGahee leads the NFL in touchdowns scored and points (36) as Week 4 begins, while Rice, who remains the starter, scored his first career touchdown last week and is averaging a solid 5.1 yards per carry. The Ravens offensive line has been a distinct credit to the cause, allowing just three sacks and paving the way for 4.7 yards per carry.
Though Baltimore has made a more lucrative living throwing the football over the first three weeks, this could be the week the Ravens shift the run-pass balance in the direction of the ground game. That's because New England is likely to be without its two best run-stoppers - inside linebacker Jerod Mayo (knee), and nose tackle Vince Wilfork (ankle). Wilfork (8 tackles) was injured in last week's win against the Falcons, and though the Patriots have not ruled him out, it is telling that the club quickly signed ex-Raiders defensive tackle Terdell Sands earlier this week. In addition to Sands and ends Ty Warren (11 tackles, 1 sack) and Jarvis Green (10 tackles), the team will need big contributions from linebackers Gary Guyton (21 tackles) and Adalius Thomas (12 tackles). Thomas, the former Raven, had five tackles last week but has logged just one sack through three games. Backup pass rusher Tully Banta-Cain (7 tackles) has one-third of New England's sack total (6) for the year, with both of his sacks coming on Buffalo's desperation final drive in Week 1. Attempting to handle the Ravens receivers this week will be cornerbacks Leigh Bodden (12 tackles) and Shawn Springs (11 tackles) and safety Brandon Meriweather (19 tackles), among others. New England has yet to record an interception on the year.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
The run-pass balance the Patriots showed last week would be ideal, though given the strength of Baltimore's run-stopping unit, Brady (871 passing yards, 3 TD, 2 INT) could be dropping back a great deal once again. Complicating that potential scenario is the injury situation at wide receiver, where Wes Welker (knee) has missed two games and Randy Moss (back) is at less than 100 percent. Moss had 10 catches for 116 yards last week despite his pain, and leads the NFL in receptions (26) as Week 4 begins. If Welker is again unavailable, impressive rookie Julian Edelman (11 receptions) and disappointing veteran Joey Galloway (7 receptions) will have to help pick up the slack along with tight ends Benjamin Watson (10 receptions, 2 TD) and Chris Baker (4 receptions, 1 TD). Baker scored his first touchdown as a Patriot last week. Taylor should again be the lead dog in the running game, with Sammy Morris (20 rushing yards, 4 receptions) and Laurence Maroney (72 rushing yards) sprinkled in as well. An inconsistent New England o-line has allowed just one sack of Brady, though he has been frequently pressured.
Some of the whispers about the Ravens' lack of continued dominance on the defensive side of the ball were answered last week, when Baltimore took it to a struggling and overmatched Cleveland attack. Four different Ravens had interceptions in the win, including one each from safeties Ed Reed (8 tackles, 1 INT), Dawan Landry (16 tackles, 2 INT), and cornerback Domonique Foxworth (8 tackles, 1 INT). Baltimore also came up with two sacks in the win, one by linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo (15 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), who also had a pick in the victory. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (14 tackles, 1.5 sacks), who has been somewhat slow to recover from a back injury, had six tackles a week ago and will need to dial up the pressure on Brady coming off the edge. The strength of the Ravens defense has been a run-stopping group that is currently No. 1 in the league (51 yards per game) and held Browns running backs to 62 yards on 21 combined carries last week. Tackles Haloti Ngata (7 tackles) and Kelly Gregg (12 tackles) continue to set the tone in the trenches for Baltimore, with Ray Lewis (21 tackles) still making consistent plays behind them.
After spending his rookie season as a fantasy free agent in most leagues, Flacco has suddenly become a worthy fantasy starter. Given how much the Ravens have put the ball in the air in the first three weeks, and how effective Flacco has been in doing so, it's safe to use him in your No. 1 role. Baltimore spreads the ball around, so using any of the receivers is problematic, though Mason looks like he'll put up numbers nearly every week. McGahee's six touchdowns through three games make him a must-play, but at some point, given the number of touches he's getting in a platoon with Rice, his production figures to drop off. The Ravens defense had its best day of the year last week when it managed four turnovers and held the Browns to three points, but don't expect that kind of success against the Patriots.
Brady has not been in 2007 form from a fantasy or real-life perspective, but he's still been a must-start, especially in leagues that value completions. The same goes for Moss, who leads the NFL in catches even if his yards and touchdowns aren't where owners would like them to be. Monitor the injury report to see if Welker is going to be available, and if he is, use him. Taylor comes off a nice week, but isn't a top-flight fantasy option due to the Patriots' offensive balance. Stephen Gostkowski is once again among the best fantasy kickers in the business.
The Patriots were left for dead last September when Brady got hurt, and still scratched and clawed their way to 11 wins and narrowly missed the playoffs. The loss to the Jets and near-defeat to the Bills had some writing their epitaph this season as well, but the formulaic win over the Falcons last week should have answered any questions about their staying power. That said, this is not the New England team that Belichick expected to have on the field, and the club's lingering injury problems make beating good teams on back-to-back weeks a tall order. It's possible that things will be much different in viewing these teams later in the season, but at this moment, the Ravens are a better club than the Patriots and that fact will show up on the scoreboard at the conclusion of this one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 20, Patriots 17
10/01 14:44:11 ET