RUSH DEFENSE: The Patriots are surprisingly ranked second overall in team defense and a big part of that has been a strong effort in the run game. Led by weak-side linebacker Jerod Mayo who is third in the NFL with 22 tackles, the Patriots have surrendered just 62.5 yards per game on the ground, the fifth lowest total in the league. New England has struggled to slow Rice, allowing him 417 rushing yards and two touchdowns in four games. Mammoth tackle Vince Wilfork will line up all over the place and give defenses fits. Linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower also need to be accounted for.
PASS DEFENSE: The signing of veteran safety Steve Gregory to team with Patrick Chung has solidified a secondary that was a disaster for much of last season. Rookie first-round pick Chandler Jones has one of the Patriots' three sacks and two forced fumbles. Only the Green Bay Packers allowed more passing yards than the Patriots did last year. However, this season, New England has permitted 202 passing yards per game, the seventh best total in the NFL. Devin McCourty is the Patriots' top corner. The Ravens also have bad memories of reserve cornerback Sterling Moore who slapped the ball away from Lee Evans last year, preventing the likely game-winning touchdown in the AFC championship .
SPECIAL TEAMS: Stephen Gostkowski has made six-of-seven field-goal attempts, but he was unable to connect from 42 yards in the closing seconds last week as the Patriots were beaten. Still, he is a normally-reliable veteran who has made 34-of-40 field goal attempts over the past two seasons. Zoltan Mesko has averaged 36.2 yards per punt but has put five inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Wide receiver Julian Edelman and McCourty are New England's primary two returners. Matthew Slater is a Pro Bowl special teams coverage guy.
INTANGIBLES: The Ravens look up to few teams in terms of regular season success but the Patriots are one of them. Since 2000, the Patriots have had two more winning seasons than the Ravens, one more playoff berth and 23 more regular season wins. The Patriots have played just two regular season games in Baltimore, winning in 1996 and 2007. Bill Belichick will undoubtedly have his team ready after the Patriots were upset by the Arizona Cardinals, 20-18, in their home opener last week. New England is 14-2 in games following losses since 2008.
PREDICTION: The Ravens surrendered 322 yards of offense to the Cincinnati Bengals and 486 yards to the Eagles. Though the Patriots spent all week talking about how much they respect the Ravens' defense, it clearly isn't the same group that they faced in late January and so many times before that. That ultimately will be the difference, more than the potential absence of tight end Aaron Hernandez. I expect a tight game throughout and I'd be very surprised if Rice doesn't get more touches than he's had the previous two weeks. However, with the game on the line, Brady will have the ball in his hands and that's usually not a good thing for the opposition. It certainly won't be for the Ravens.
Patriots, 27-23.Orioles Insider | Live scores | Photos | Baseball app