It's the Patriots and Ravens on Sunday night in Baltimore, and with both teams currently owning a 1-1 record, there's no denying this is a big game. It's much better to start off 2-1 than 1-2 record, since the NFL season is relatively short and there are only so many games for teams to win. So here are five things fans should be looking out for when they tune their TVs in to NBC on Sunday night:
1. Baltimore's Defense vs. New England's Offensive Line in Pass Protection
Baltimore is usually strong on defense. Though they currently rank 27th in the NFL in total yards allowed per game, they rank just sixth in points allowed per game (stats from ESPN.com). The New England offensive line didn't do a good job protecting Tom Brady last week, and he was sacked four times. It doesn't matter who's on defense for the Baltimore Ravens, the Patriots have to block better so Brady can have time to throw the ball. The Patriots offense has lots of passing-game weapons, and the offensive line has to be better so New England can use those weapons.
2. Ray Rice vs. New England's Defense
The Patriots defense has been playing well, even holding Chris Johnson to just four yards on 11 carries in week 1. Can they do the same to Ray Rice, who has gone for more than 1000 yards rushing in each of the last three seasons (stat from nfl.com) and had 99 yards rushing against the Eagles last week?
3. Stevan Ridley vs. Baltimore's Defense
What about Stevan Ridley when New England has the ball? The offense looked like a two-pronged attack in week 1 when he went for 125 yards, but his numbers were less impressive in week 2 (18 carries for 71 yards). As listed on Pro-football-reference.com, the Patriots' second-leading rusher is Danny Woodhead, who's totaled just 38 yards over the first two weeks. Plus, if you add up all the Patriots' listed rushers on pro-football-reference, they have just 56 rushing yards combined aside from Ridley's 196. If the Patriots want to yield a versatile team this season, Ridley has to be the one to do the work on the ground.
4. How Will New England Compensate for the Loss of Aaron Hernandez?
No doubt Hernandez was a huge part of the Patriots' offense. Look for the obvious targets of Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Lloyd to fill in along with the newly (re)acquired Deion Branch. Kellen Winslow, whom the Pats also added this week, could play a role as well, but it probably won't be a big one this week since he'll likely need a little bit of time for him to get used to a brand new offense. It's more likely Brady will look to his more familiar receivers in Branch and Gronk than it will be for him to go to Winslow right away. I predict the Patriots will use lots of sets with three receivers and one tight end this week, since their best weapons in the passing game are likely Gronkowski, Branch, Lloyd, and Wes Welker/Julian Edelman.
5. Where's Wes?
Pay attention to where Wes Welker is this weekend. In other words, will he be watching from the sideline, or playing in the game? After two weeks in which his playing time has been reduced from 2011 (statistical evidence of that reduction presented here in Whither Wes Welker? Receiver’s reduced role may lead to a new location, a yahoo.com article by Brian McIntyre), it seems like something must be going on with the wideout. Of course, exactly what is wrong with Welker, we may never know.
**NOTE: Since the Giants and Panthers played last night, that means they've played one game more than every other team in the NFL. Therefore, some of the stats that rank the Ravens and Patriots in terms of the entire NFL could be slightly misleading, since they're both behind by one in total number of games played.