Parity has been prevalent in the NFL for years and this season sets up to generate more of the same; as the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens are two of 20 teams to have split the season's first two games. This week, the Patriots and Ravens square off in the weekend's most anticipated game, with both teams looking to bounce back from disappointing Week 2 losses.
The game is a rematch of last season's AFC title game; where the Patriots were beneficiaries of a missed game-tying field goal by Billy Cundiff and escaped with a 23-20 victory and their sixth Super bowl appearance in franchise history.
A win is a win, but the Ravens enter Sunday night's clash with the firm belief that they were the better team in January and they are the better team today. For the Ravens' benefit, the nationally televised game will be played in Baltimore as opposed to the unfriendly confines of Gillette Stadium, where last season's heart-breaking defeat took place.
As much as many of the players are the same from year to year, the Ravens entered the 2012 season playing a more up-tempo style of offense; geared to provide more cushion for the physical but aging defense. Future hall-of-famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed remain the team's undisputed leaders, carrying forth the "defense wins championships" mentality that has been their hallmark since winning Super Bowl XXV.
The defense may not be as dominant as it once was, but is currently ranked sixth in points allowed and still more than capable of getting the job done. A desire to prove the wrong team advanced to last season's Super Bowl will be added incentive for a team with their window of opportunity closing.
Here are a few key factors in Sunday's contest which may tip the contest in the favor to either side come Sunday:
The offensive shortcomings of New England played a huge part in the team's loss to the Arizona Cardinals last week. The team seemed unable to put together lengthy offensive drives early in the game and only became more proficient when they fell behind late and looked to pass on most plays. This week they face another defense capable of frustrating Brady; as the Ravens proved to have moderate success frustrating Brady in January's AFC title game.
Patriots' running back Stevan Ridley came down to earth last week, rushing for 71 yards after breaking onto the scene with 125 yards the week prior. This season the Ravens are 20th in the league in rushing yards allowed, so Ridley's ability to carry the load and take the Raven's focus on pressuring Brady will be essential and tested early. Baltimore has surrendered 258 rushing yards in the season's first two games and is also missing reigning defensive player of the year Terrell Suggs; providing a glimmer of hope that the Patriots can gain positive yardage on the ground Sunday.
In the passing game the Patriots will play for the next few weeks without tight end Aaron Hernandez, who suffered a high ankle sprain early in their loss to Arizona. With Hernandez missing, the Patriots will rely more heavily on Rob Gronkowski to catch the short to intermediate passes over the middle.
To replace Hernandez on the roster for the foreseeable future, the team signed recently released Deion Branch and former Pro Bowl tight end Kellen Winslow to add more targets for Brady to throw to. How much either of these players will impact Sunday's contest is unsure, although Branch is very familiar with the Patriots' offense in general and Brady specifically.
Despite ranking sixth in points allowed, the Ravens not only rank in the bottom third in rushing yards allowed but are also struggling to stop their opponents' passing attack; ranking 26th in the league in that category. Brady's ability to spread the passing game over several receivers and widening the playing field will be beneficial with an aging defense across from them.
While defense has been the Ravens' calling card for years, the Patriots are beginning to build a solid young defensive unit; with rookie defenders Chandler Jones and Don't'a Hightower performing well in the season's opening weeks. New England currently ranks fourth in the league in points allowed although their first two opponents (Tennessee, Arizona) are not considered above average offenses.
Baltimore's second-ranked offense in points scored has an added focus on the hurry-up offense, which prevents the Patriots the luxury of making situational substitutions as they do in other games. In doing so, New England's developing but yet unproven secondary may be tested by the more pass-oriented Ravens.
The front seven of the Patriots also do not have the luxury of focusing only on the passing game, as running back Ray Rice is among the NFLs most dominant rushers. With New England's linebackers cheating up, intermediate open passes and man to man coverage mismatches for Baltimore may be available.
How well New England stops the running game with their defensive line will help dictate how much help the linebackers can help in the passing game.
After the Raven's special team blunder against the Patriots in January, it would not be wise to overlook the impact that special teams will have on this year's contest. In many instances where two evenly matched teams compete, it usually comes down to the performance of these often overlooked players that can make the difference in determining the game's outcome.
Not only do the Ravens have to overcome the mental image of Billy Cundiff's missed game-tying field goal, the Patriots have more recent memories to reflect on; as Stephen Gostkowski and Zoltan Mesko each faltered for the Patriots on Sunday. Gostkowski missed a game-winning field goal and the end of regulation while Zoltan Mesko had a punt blocked in the third quarter that led to the Cardinals extending their lead to 11 on Sunday.
The Ravens have moved on from Cundiff and have a new kicker in Justin Tucker, who is a perfect six for six in field goals thus far in 2012. Punter Sam Koch has been solid as the team's punter, averaging over 48 yards per kick this season.
Whichever team performs better on special teams may be a deciding factor on Sunday.
This matchup between the Patriots and Ravens is set up to be another classic game in the growing rivalry between these conference rivals. Both teams have championship aspirations and the victor on Sunday will have a much needed tie-breaker in their possession as these teams are likely to finish among the best in the AFC this season. Every advantage matters when it comes to the elite teams in the league and this contest could be a major factor in forecasting possible playoff seeds come January. With home field advantage in the playoffs possibly at stake, this game will be hotly contested and likely to come down to the waning seconds of play.
Despite missing Hernandez in the passing game, the Patriots are still the better offense and their defense is younger and improving. The game will likely be close until the fourth quarter when New England will pull away with a late game scoring drive.
New England Patriots 27
Baltimore Ravens 24
Scott Duhaime is a fan and follower of the New England Patriots for over 30 years, witnessing the team's ascent from league irrelevance to among the league's elite franchises.
Follow Scott on Twitter: @Scott_Duhaime
Yahoo! Sports NFL Box score: New England Patriots 34 @ Tennessee Titans 13
Yahoo! Sports NFL Box score: Arizona Cardinals 20 @ New England Patriots 18
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