Patriots starters Wilfork, Warren return to work, prep for Ravens

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren are ready to return to the New England Patriots' defense.

It sure could use them.

Without their two best defensive linemen, the Patriots allowed 144 rushing yards against a Houston team that entered last Sunday's game with the NFL's second-worst running attack. The Texans won 34-27.

This Sunday, the challenge is much tougher -- stopping the double-dangerous ground game of the Baltimore Ravens with Ray Rice and Willis McGahee. Control the league's fifth-ranked rushing offense, and the Patriots will have a better chance of winning that wild-card playoff game.

"They have two tough runners," Wilfork said. "We pride ourselves around here with stopping the run. Sometimes we did this year, sometimes we didn't. But you know what? It all starts over now. It all starts at 0-0."

Wilfork, named to his second Pro Bowl at nose tackle, missed the last three games with a foot injury. Warren, a defensive end, sat out two of those games and most of the third with an ankle problem. Both returned to full practice Wednesday.

In their last five games, the Ravens averaged 182.6 yards on the ground. Rice is sixth in the NFL with 1,339 rushing yards and led all running backs with 78 receptions. McGahee ran for a career-high 167 yards and three touchdowns in last Sunday's 21-13 victory over the Oakland Raiders.

"I don't think it matters too much to them who gets the ball," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Whichever guy is in there is a big threat for us. We have to really do a good job against either back. They're different, but they're both dangerous."

The Ravens ran just 17 times in their first game against the Patriots in Foxborough this season, a 27-21 New England victory in which Wilfork and Warren started.

Rice rushed for 103 yards, but 50 came on one play. Quarterback Joe Flacco did most of the damage, completing 27 of 47 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns. But one of those incompletions ruined the Ravens' last chance when Mark Clayton dropped a fourth-down pass that would have given them a first down inside the 10-yard line with 28 seconds left.

But the Patriots' defense struggled later in the season. In one four-game stretch, it allowed more than 400 yards three times. But in the next three games, all wins, no opponent managed more than 305.

That changed last Sunday when Houston piled up 439 yards and Matt Schaub went 24-of-39 passing for 303 yards and two touchdowns with one interception, helping the Texans overcome a 27-13 fourth-quarter deficit.

So when cornerback Shawn Springs was asked if the defense is playing nearly as well as it has all season, he quickly answered.

"I don't know about that," he said. "I think we can continue to get better. We've been banged up the last couple of weeks with Vince and guys like that missing. So now with Vince and Ty, hopefully they'll be back, and the secondary continuing to work on their technique and stuff like that, we'll get better."

The Patriots' defense figures to be at full strength. The only player who didn't fully participate in practices Wednesday and Thursday was offensive lineman Dan Connolly, who missed both sessions with an ankle injury.

The 325-pound Wilfork had started 51 consecutive games before his injury.

"It's been tough," he said. "I want to play football, but sometimes you have to take a seat and get healthy. And that's where I was. I'm looking forward to this week. I feel a lot better. I've been in the stands and on the field, but I'd rather be out with the guys, sweating and getting bruised up."

With Wilfork and Warren out, rookies Myron Pryor and Ron Brace received more experience.

"Those guys that have played basically on the defensive line the last couple weeks certainly have gotten a good workload," Belichick said, "and I think, in the long run, that will benefit them."

The Patriots also are counting on youngsters in the short run. Starting inside linebackers Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton, both in their second NFL season, will make their playoff debuts. Rookie cornerback Darius Butler has seen significant playing time with five starts.

Will that inexperience hurt?

"Honestly, I think you throw all of that out of the window in the playoffs," said Springs, a 13-year veteran. "I think it's just about how you perform on Sunday. You can talk about experience -- and I'm sure it does play a factor -- but for the most part, you've just got to get it done that week."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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