Tom Brady doesn’t lose at home very often, compiling a 62-6 regular-season record at Gillette Stadium since the start of the 2007 season.
But if there’s one team that isn’t intimidated by the lighthouse or the foghorn or the December weather, it’s the Baltimore Ravens, the Patriots’ opponent Monday night.
Brady is 7-3 all time against the Ravens, but John Harbaugh and his guys have twice come into Gillette and won a playoff game: 33-14 in January of 2010, and 28-13 in January of 2013.
The Ravens also locked horns with the Patriots in an epic playoff game two seasons ago, with the Patriots needing to use every trick in the book to pull out a 35-31 win.
In their last six games against the Ravens at Gillette — all against Harbaugh and Joe Flacco — the Patriots have not won by more than 6 points.
The 10-2 Patriots need to keep winning to keep pace with the Raiders for the No. 1 playoff seed in the AFC, but they will face one of the NFL’s hottest teams in the Ravens, who have the league’s stingiest defense and have won four of five to jump into the AFC North lead. Of course, all four of those wins came in the friendly confines of M&T Bank Stadium, and the Ravens lost their one road game in this stretch, at Dallas three weeks ago.
It has been just about two years since the Patriots last played the Ravens. While many of the old faces are still around — Harbaugh, Flacco, Steve Smith, Terrell Suggs, Dennis Pitta, and Lardarius Webb — this is an unfamiliar team for the Patriots, with new schemes and new issues to deal with.
To get a better feel for what to expect Sunday, we picked the brain of Baltimore Sun beat writer Jeff Zrebiec and watched the All-22 film of the Ravens’ 38-6 win over Miami Sunday.
Coordinator: Marty Mornhinweg.
Key skill players: QB Joe Flacco, RB Terrance West, RB Kenneth Dixon, WR Steve Smith, WR Mike Wallace, TE Dennis Pitta.
Personnel notes: The Ravens are relatively healthy. The only key starter who won’t play is G/T Alex Lewis (ankle), who is set to miss his fourth straight game. Marshal Yanda has switched to left guard because of a shoulder injury, and former Jet Vlad Ducasse has filled in at right guard. The other players who are questionable are all backups: RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (hamstring), RB Buck Allen (non-football injury), and TE Crockett Gillmore (hamstring). Tight ends Maxx Williams and Ben Watson are on injured reserve, replaced by second-year pros Darren Waller and Nick Boyle.
What to expect: The Patriots secondary had better get some extra conditioning in this week. It is going to be busy Monday night.
The Ravens offense has been inconsistent all season, as reflected in the team’s 7-5 record and place in the rankings — 21st in points (21.3 ppg) and 17th in total offense. But the Ravens broke out in a big way against the Dolphins, achieving season highs in points (38) and yards (496). They had four touchdown drives of 70-plus yards, including an incredible 18-play, 103-yard drive (yes, you read that right) that chewed 8:57 off the clock in the second quarter.
The Ravens have made two major adjustments in recent weeks: They go more up-tempo, and they put the ball in Flacco’s hands. They used the no-huddle offense on about 30 of their 72 offensive snaps against the Dolphins, and had a totally unbalanced play distribution of 47 passes and 10 runs when Flacco was in the game.
Overall, Flacco’s 497 pass attempts this season are second in the NFL, behind Drew Brees’s 500. The Ravens’ pass-run ratio is 62-38.
The Baltimore schemes and personnel present many challenges for a defense, forcing the Patriots to defend three key areas: deep passes, the middle of the field, and checkdowns to the running back.
We all know about Flacco’s arm strength and his propensity to chuck the ball deep to let his receivers run under it or draw pass interference. And Wallace (with a 95-yard touchdown this year), Smith, and Breshad Perriman all have speed to burn.
Flacco is also one of the best quarterbacks in the league at utilizing the middle of the field, and he put on a clinic against the Dolphins. Flacco has a huge arm and isn’t afraid to throw the ball into tight windows.
Against zone coverage, he threw slant passes to Smith and Aiken, or hitches over the middle to his tight ends, who settled into soft spots in the zone.
Against man coverage, he’ll throw drags and deep fades, and he connected with Pitta for two touchdowns on vertical seam routes.
The Ravens’ running game hasn’t been very productive, with West leading the team with 650 yards, five touchdowns, and a 4.0 average. But they have a solid, veteran offensive line that has now used the same combination for the last four weeks, and they keep you honest with a zone blocking scheme and stretch run game.
The Patriots will have to be disciplined in their run lanes — we’re looking at you, Jabaal Sheard — to take away the back-side cutback lanes.
The running backs are always dangerous on dumpoffs and screens, though neither West nor Dixon has hit many big plays this year.
But if you sell out too hard to stop the run, Flacco has good athleticism and can be deadly with the play-action rollouts, as on his first touchdown against Miami.
I’m not expecting the Patriots to attack Flacco as they did Jared Goff last Sunday. The Ravens have too many receiving threats, and Flacco can make a defense pay in a hurry. I would expect to see a lot of two-deep safety to take away the big pass, and a lot of three- and four-man rushes as the Patriots try to flood the passing lanes.
Flacco showed again last week that he handles the blitz very well, often recognizing the pressure before the snap, changing the play, and throwing into the pressure to an open receiver.
Don’t be surprised if the Patriots play a little more man-to-man coverage, with Patrick Chung taking an important role on the tight ends and Malcolm Butler getting a must-watch matchup with the always-feisty Smith.
Coordinator: Dean Pees.
Key personnel: DT Timmy Jernigan, DT Brandon Williams, OLB Terrell Suggs, ILB C.J. Mosley, ILB Zach Orr, CB Jimmy Smith, SS Eric Weddle, FS Lardarius Webb.
Personnel notes: Former Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington is on injured reserve with a concussion. Otherwise the Ravens are fairly healthy on defense. Smith returned last week after missing two games with a back injury and made a big difference against the Dolphins.
What to expect: This unit won’t be confused with the 2000 Ravens defense, but it has been one of the best in the NFL this year, ranked second in points allowed (17.3 per game), first in total defense, and first in first downs allowed (16.6 per game).
The scheme is similar to what they’ve been over the years. The Ravens disguise their pressure and aren’t afraid to zone blitz or bring a defensive back. They are athletic in the back seven, and play a lot of man-to-man coverage, but have the versatility to play any number of zone coverages. The Ravens have been opportunistic, forcing 22 takeaways, fourth-most in the NFL.
Against the Dolphins, the Ravens disguised their blitz well, forced Ryan Tannehill into a check-down throw to the running back, then rotated well to make the tackle after just 2 yards.
The pass defense is good but not spectacular — ranked seventh overall, but having allowed 21 touchdown passes. They have a young cornerback group that badly needs Smith, their first-round pick in 2011.
Weddle, a free agent signee from San Diego who has three interceptions and 10 passes defended, has been a great addition, causing havoc as a deep safety, an occasional blitzer, and a run stopper. Weddle will also begin the play as a deep safety but rotate down as the “robber,” patrolling the middle part of the field and keeping an eye on the quarterback.
And Webb, a former cornerback, is now the last line of defense in deep center field.
He showed impressive range against the Dolphins, literally covering half the field as he raced toward the pylon and nabbed an interception.
But the Ravens’ strength is in their front seven. They boast the league’s No. 1 run defense (73.8 yards per game), allowing 65 or fewer rushing yards in nine of their 12 games. Their 3.4-yard average is the lowest in the NFL, and no team has allowed fewer rushing touchdowns than the Ravens’ four.
Jernigan is a penetrating 295-pound pass rusher up the middle (five sacks), while Williams is a load at 6-1, 340 pounds. Rookie Michael Pierce is the third man in the rotation, and has two sacks.
Orr, an undrafted rookie in 2014, has racked up a ton of tackles as the unblocked defender — a team-high 110 — while adding an interception and a forced fumble. Mosley, their first-round pick in 2014, is used more in pass coverage and has three interceptions. The two are extremely fast but also undersized, Mosley at 6-2, 241, and Orr at 6-0, 225.
And then, of course, there is Suggs, who has eight sacks and three forced fumbles and played 50 of 62 snaps against Miami. He’s now 34 years old, but should still be a handful for Nate Solder.
Expect the Patriots to go pass-happy to attack the cornerbacks and avoid the run defense. This could be a big game for Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, and Malcolm Mitchell.
If there’s a coach who can match wits and preparation with Bill Belichick on special teams, it’s Harbaugh, a former longtime special teams coach.
Kicker Justin Tucker has been quite the weapon this year. He has hit all 28 of his field goal attempts, including 8 for 8 from 50-plus yards, with a 55-yarder against the Dolphins at the end of the first half last week. Overall he’s hit 35 straight kicks, and has incredible distance and accuracy.
Punter Sam Koch is third in the NFL with 28 punts inside the 20 (only four touchbacks). And the kick returner is none other than Devin Hester, who doesn’t have a touchdown this year but has a 28-yard punt return and a 60-yard kick return.