Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS (Line: Ravens by 2½)
When the Patriots run
LeGarrette Blount is built for situations like this — late December, Northeast games against an attacking defense. The 6-foot, 250-pound Blount has a pretty simple style. He takes the ball and runs north, crashing into holes and defenders with power and ferocity. Thick and muscular, Blount runs at good pad level, leads with his shoulders, and keeps his legs pumping. Gang-tackling is a must, and that’s just fine with the Ravens, who specialize in just that. Stevan Ridley (5-11, 220) is a quicker, more energetic runner. He locates lanes quickly and will bolt through them and on to the second level. He lacks power but will avoid tacklers with nifty spin moves and stutter steps. It’s clear his ball-security issues are costing him carries. He is just not trusted right now. Shane Vereen (5-10, 205) can be explosive but does his best work in space. The Ravens are stacked with scary monsters who excel at chewing up and spitting out running backs. Nose man Haloti Ngata (6-4, 330) may look like a fatbody, but he’s all muscle. Ngata has the power to occupy multiple blockers (allowing the linebackers clear paths to the ball) and the deceptive quickness to shoot gaps and make plays in the backfield. Terrence Cody (6-4, 349) has the strength and power to anchor against the run and Arthur Jones (6-3, 313) is athletic and active. He hits hard. Linebackers Daryl Smith and Jameel McClain are stout.
New England offense: 118.3 (12th)
Baltimore defense: 102.4 (Seventh)
When the Patriots pass
Well, it took exactly one series for everyone to be reminded of just how much Rob Gronkowski means to this offense — the Patriots went 16 plays on their initial possession against the Dolphins and couldn’t punch it in the end zone. We won’t even mention the final drive. Still, Tom Brady was able to move the ball — thanks in large part to Julian Edelman. The 5-10, 198-pounder has been nothing short of spectacular. He gains separation with quick feet and precise route-running. Danny Amendola (5-11, 195) is getting more comfortable and Brady is trusting him more (not that he really has a choice). Amendola, like Edelman, is versatile but has a little more speed. Both are fearless. As is Austin Collie (6 feet, 204), who needs more touches. Shane Vereen functions largely as a receiver. He is excellent on screens but can also line up wide and run wheel routes and deep flies. The Ravens have three good corners. Jimmy Smith is an excellent athlete with quick feet. He is susceptible to double moves but has excellent makeup speed. Lardarius Webb has great awareness and instincts but will occasionally get burned on a bad gamble. Corey Graham has good strength and will jam receivers. Safeties James Ihedigbo (he will sometimes overpursue but hits like a truck) and rookie Matt Elam (he can cover like a corner and thump like a linebacker) will make lots of plays.
New England offense: 272.4 (Sixth)
Baltimore defense: 231.6 (13th)
When the Ravens run
Ray Rice is one of the more entertaining players in the league. Listed at a generous 5-8, 212 pounds, Rice is a threat as a runner or receiver out of the backfield. A muscular pit bull, Rice runs low to the ground and can be hard to locate (duh). He has thick legs that are always churning through and around defenders. Rice gets to the second level in a flash — regardless of whether he gets there by banging between the tackles or bouncing outside. Bernard Pierce (6 feet, 218) is a bigger back with excellent vision and quickness. He sees blocks developing and picks his spots accordingly. He has a nice first step, runs hard, and will keep his balance after contact. He’s a perfect complement to Rice. Fullback Vonta Leach (6 feet, 260) isn’t a big threat to run the ball but he is a big threat. Leach slams his sturdy frame into the line to create holes. Like everything about the Ravens, their interior three is rugged. Left guard A.Q. Shipley (6-1, 305) is tough and technically sound, center Gino Gradkowski (6-3, 300) is tough and smart, and right guard Marshal Yanda (6-3, 315) is tough and wily. The Patriots did a better job against the run in Miami but face a tougher challenge in Baltimore. Rookie tackles Joe Vellano and Chris Jones are wide bodies who have flashed athleticism but can get overwhelmed. Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga has girth and strength. He does well in short-yardage situations but lacks the stamina and consistency to play more.
Rushing yards per game
Baltimore offense: 82.9 (29th)
New England defense: 132.5 (31st)
When the Ravens pass
Joe Flacco has classic NFL quarterback size (6-6, 245 pounds) and a cannon for an arm. He sets up in the pocket quickly, has good footwork, and throws perfect spirals. Flacco can be streaky and when he’s feeling it, he is among the more accurate passers in the league. When he’s off, his tosses sail and he telegraphs his passes. He throws a very catchable deep ball and absolute lasers on medium routes. He will sometimes throw the fastball on short passes when a changeup would be better. Torrey Smith is a dynamic playmaker. Plagued by drops early in his career, Smith has developed into a reliable player who gains separation and will make highlight-reel catches. Undrafted Marlon Brown has emerged as a go-to guy. Injury-plagued throughout college, the 6-4, 213-pounder is healthy and torturing foes. He has neither great speed nor quickness but he is very physical. Brown has a knack for finding the end zone. Jacoby Jones (6-3, 220) is another big target with good speed. He will make some spectacular catches but is prone to losing focus (i.e. drops). Tight ends Ed Dickson, Dallas Clark, and Dennis Pitta are top-notch receivers but not dominant blockers. Ray Rice is a demon on screens. New England’s secondary struggled in South Florida and the task will be harder in Baltimore. Safety Devin McCourty continues to do yeoman’s work. He can cover like a corner (because he is one at heart) and is a fearless hitter.
Passing yards per game
Baltimore offense: 227.0 (20th)
New England defense: 240.2 (18th)
Ravens’ key player: Daryl Smith
Finally freed from the purgatory that is Jacksonville, the 6-foot-2-inch, 248-pound rangy linebacker is making the most of his time in Charm City. Smith is not the dynamic playmaker Ray Lewis was (who is?) but we hear he’s a much better dancer.
HOW HE BEATS YOU: By reading and reacting quickly. Smith has excellent recognition skills and speed. He is explosive off the snap, will slip blocks and clog lanes, and his hits can be cringe-inducing.
HOW TO SHUT HIM DOWN: By taking the fight to him. Smith is not the strongest guy on the field and will struggle to break away when big, ornery offensive linemen get their mitts on him.
RAVENS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Blue Christmas: Outside linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs (he loves to talk, he hates Tom Brady) must create pressure off the edge to limit the quarterback’s pocket time.
2. Holiday rush: With Joe Flacco ailing, let Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce carry the load and the offense. Both are more than capable, and the Patriots can be pushed around up front.
3. Christmas Canon: Torrey Smith is a true speed burner. Send him on some go routes and let him try to burn the defense. If the Patriots stay in man coverage, Smith and Flacco could make them pay.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Heat miser: Nobody’s hotter than Julian Edelman right now. Tom Brady’s most trusted receiver — and the best punt returner in the business — has to lead the team in touches. Good things happen when he has the ball.
2. Happy holidays: Ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich have to get a few big fat sacks and put immobile and ailing quarterback Joe Flacco upon his back.
3. Ho-ho-ho manawanui: Just because Gronk is out, don’t abandon the tight end position. Michael Hoomanawanui has proved he can be a very good blocker. But he also has a decent set of mitts. Give him some targets.
Prediction: Ravens 27, Patriots 20