What to watch for in Ravens-Patriots on 'MNF'

Print
  • By Jeremy Bergman NFL.com
More Columns >

The setting is familiar.

John Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens ride the Acela up toward Boston to take on Bill Belichick's New England Patriots in prime-time. The air is cool and crisp, and there's a lot on the line.

Whenever the Ravens play at Gillette Stadium, something of great importance happens.

January 2010: Ray Rice's first-play 83-yard scamper hands New England its first home playoff defeat in the new digs.
January 2012: Four words. Lee. Evans. Billy. Cundiff.
January 2013: The Ravens earn redemption and a trip to their second Super Bowl.
January 2015: Harbaugh is miffed by the Pats' unorthodox formations.

This time around, there's less at stake, but much to play for. New England has an opportunity to wrest control of the top seed in the AFC further away from the Raiders and Chiefs. The Ravens are looking to stay one game ahead of the surging Steelers atop the AFC North and in front of a trio of AFC South wannabes in playoff seeding.

Here's what to watch for when the Ravens (7-5) take on Tom Terrific's Patriots (10-2) on Monday Night Football:

1. Hey, look: It's an unstoppable force and an immovable object! Tom Brady is at it again in 2016, having completed 68.9 percent of passes with a 113.1 passer rating and a 19-1 TD-INT ratio in his eight games post-suspension. If not for a recent slow down in production and dynamite seasons from the Cowboys' rookies, Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford, Brady would be leading MVP conversations. Besting the top-ranked Baltimore defense would do wonders for his candidacy. The Ravens' league-best unit is anchored by the run defense, but is also a force on third downs, allowing conversions on just one-third of all attempts. But if history tells us anything, it's that Brady will be unmoved by such a daunting opponent. In fact, the four-time Super Bowl winner is 6-0 at home against top-ranked defenses with a 66.2 completion percentage and a 12-3 TD-INT ratio. To make matters worse for Baltimore, its strength is Brady's strength; the QB boasts a 132.3 passer rating on third-down plays this season. The only question for Brady now is who to throw to...

2. Rob Gronkowski is done for the season, but Brady still has a number of passing options to target in the tight end's wake. Danny Amendola won't play with an ankle injury, but Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan will be valuable assets against the Ravens in short yardage, as they've been all season. When it comes to taking shots downfield, Brady may have some trouble. Martellus Bennett boasts the highest passer rating when targeted (127.4) in the league, but he hasn't been the same without Gronkowski in the lineup. Common sense would tell you that Gronk's absence would open up opportunities for him, but in fact, Bennett averages 10 fewer yards per game without his teammate and has scored two fewer touchdowns. Last week against the Rams, Bennett saw just four targets.

If not Bennett past the marker, then who? Signs point to Malcolm Mitchell, who has turned it on over the past three weeks. The rookie wideout has lined up on 73 percent of New England's snaps and averaged 7.3 targets since Week 11. He also played a crucial role in the Patriots' win over the Jets in Week 12 when he caught two touchdowns, including the game winner, after Gronk went down for good. Against a Ravens secondary that has allowed the second-most TDs to wide receivers this season (19), Mitchell is slated to have his prime time moment.

3. We won't ask that Joe Flacco question. However, it is fair to wonder whether the Ravens quarterback's showing last week against the Dolphins was an aberration or a sign of things to come. Long a dump-down, pass-heavy attack, the Ravens let Flacco loose against Miami, calling short and deep slants with regularity. The result was Flacco's best game of the season (381 yards, four TDs, 119.2 rating, 76.6 percent completion). His ability to get all of his receivers from Steve Smith and Mike Wallace to Breshad Perriman and Dennis Pitta involved turned Baltimore into an unstoppable force for much of the game. It will be interesting to see if that model of production is sustainable against surefire playoff contenders like New England and if Baltimore eventually turns to its underrated run game for support.

4. Speaking of Pitta, welcome back! The long-injured Ravens tight end has played in all 12 games this season sans serious injury, but only just scored his first two touchdowns of the year last week. Pitta is quietly having a solid comeback year, is tied for second for receptions among tight ends (61) and is on pace to match his career high in yardage (529 through 12 games). But he'll face a stiffer test in Foxborough on Monday night. The Patriots have allowed only one tight end all season to go over 55 yards (Gary Barnidge, 76) and have given up just three scores to tight ends this season.

5. LeGarrette Blount is on fire. The Pats running back leads the league with 13 rushing touchdowns and is 43 yards from his first 1,000-yard season since his rookie year. But the Baltimore front seven will be happy to delay his milestone. Baltimore has surrendered a league-low four rushing touchdowns and 73.8 rushing yards per game. Shutting down a workhorse like Blount, who has 18-plus carries in five of his last six games, will be a priority for Zach Orr, C.J. Mosley and Co.

6. The AFC playoff picture hinges on this result. With a win, the Patriots will control their own destiny for home-field advantage. A Ravens win would help them keep pace with the Steelers after Pittsburgh's win over Buffalo. In Week 16, the Ravens and Steelers meet in Pittsburgh, a matchup that would likely end up determining who wins the division.

Print