Suddenly, the pressure is all on the New England Patriots. They need to win at least one of their final two games, or need at least one loss from either the Miami Dolphins or Baltimore Ravens to ensure a playoff spot.
They can kill two (proverbial) birds with one stone on Sunday.
Here's an early look at the Baltimore Ravens.
How they got here: The Ravens started a modest 3-2 before dropping three games in a row, but they are one of the hottest teams in the NFL right now and are riding a four-game winning streak. As a result, the Ravens are still in the hunt for the AFC North division title despite suffering some symptoms of a Super Bowl hangover earlier this year. Two of the Ravens' eight wins have come against teams that currently have a winning record, but those wins (over the Dolphins and Bengals) are rife with playoff implications.
Key cog, offense -- Torrey Smith, WR: Smith is known far less for his nondescript 6-foot-1, 204-pound frame than he is for his blazing speed. He ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at the 2011 scouting combine, and has run straight through the heart of the defense since joining the NFL. He's been less of a true vertical threat this year, but the Ravens have found ways to get him involved on short throws. He has set career-highs in both receptions (59) and yards (1,032) this year, and had six receptions for 127 yards and two touchdowns against the Patriots in the regular season meeting last year.
Key cog, defense -- Terrell Suggs, OLB: You could argue for Elvis Dumervil in this spot, but Suggs is the more well-rounded player for his ability to both rush the passer and set the edge in run defense. His explosive first-step quickness was what made him such a threat early in his career, and although there's still some burst left in those legs. Suggs can still be washed out against the run on occasion, but he has greatly improved in that area and has 11 tackles for loss this season. Suggs has been fairly quiet in his past two games against the Patriots (both AFC Championship Games), and has not logged a sack in either one. Ordinarily, left tackle Nate Solder would draw that assignment, but Solder suffered a possible concussion against the Dolphins, so we'll have to see how this affects his availability for practices as we head into this game.
X factor -- Dennis Pitta, TE: The Patriots were not the only team that was without its top tight end for much of the beginning of the season. Pitta has only just returned to the Ravens lineup over the past two weeks, but is already making an impact, with six receptions for 48 yards and a touchdown in his first game back against the Vikings, and added two receptions and 24 yards against the Lions. Pitta hasn't dramatically improved the Ravens offense, but he has helped open things up over the middle. He's not particularly fast or physical, but his quickness helps him get open out of his breaks. At 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, he's a better red zone threat than nearly anyone else available to the Ravens. Here's a pretty awesome in-depth look at Pitta's impact on the Ravens offense, as explained by Greg Bedard of
The Boston Globe TheMMQB.com.
Stats and notes:
- Notable injuries: Wide receiver Brandon Stokley (concussion) went on injured reserve last week. Dumervil (ankle) and cornerback Lardarius Webb (abdomen) have both been limited in practices lately; Dumervil was listed as questionable, and Webb listed as probable, but both were active on Monday night.
- If the Patriots are hoping to fix their struggling red zone offense, the Ravens will be a tough team to do it against. Headed into Monday night, they ranked second in the NFL in defensive red zone percentage, allowing opponents to convert on 39.39 percent of opportunities. They allowed the Lions to score a touchdown on both of their red zone trips Monday night.
- The Ravens offensive line was the most improved unit in the postseason, but has been exposed this year. Two midseason trades sent tackle Bryant McKinnie to Miami, and brought in Jaguars tackle Eugene Monroe. Add those to a season-ending injury to guard Kelechi Osemeli and poor play from tackle Michael Oher, and there have not been many bright spots for the offensive line. Headed into Monday night, the Ravens were averaging just 2.97 YPA rushing (the league's lowest average) and Flacco had been pressured on 35.2 percent of his dropbacks.
- Running back Ray Rice has long been one of the most well-rounded backs in the NFL, but he's taken a big step back this season. He's had over 1,600 yards from scrimmage in each of the past four seasons, but has just 868 yards this year so far. In six career games against the Patriots, Rice has 121 carries for 566 yards (4.7 YPA) and four touchdowns.
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