After the Ravens trudged through snow in their last home game, the forecast for Sunday's game against the New England Patriots is 70 degrees and a 60 percent chance of rain. There is potential for severe thunderstorms.
"Does that mean lightning? So, that could be a delay, right?," coach John Harbaugh said after Friday's practice. "I wouldn't be surprised if that happens."
The Ravens have already had two games delayed by weather this season. The kickoff for their season opener at Denver was pushed back a half hour because of lightning. Then, five weeks ago, the Ravens' game at Chicago was stopped for 1 hour, 53 minutes because of tornados in the area.
Sunday's game has major playoff implications for the Ravens. A win against the Patriots means the Ravens are playing for the AFC North title in the regular-season finale at Cincinnati. A loss could significantly hurt the Ravens' playoff chances.
Here's a look at where the Ravens rank in team and individual categories after 15 weeks:
Total yards: 309.9 (29th)
Rushing: 82.9 (29th)
Passing: 227.0 (20th)
Scoring: 21.1 (25th)
Third down: 37.1 percent (17th)
Red zone: 48.9 percent (21st) 29th
Total yards: 334.0 (9th)
Rushing: 102.4 (7th)
Passing: 231.6 (13th)
Scoring: 19.8 (7th)
Third down: 32.4 percent (3rd)
Red zone: 42.9 percent (tied-1st) (4th)
Passing yards per game: Joe Flacco, 247.0 (14th)
Rushing yards per game: Ray Rice, 46.5 (29th)
Receiving yards per game: Torrey Smith, 73.7 (20th)
Tackles: Daryl Smith, 107 (20th)
Sacks: Elvis Dumervil, 9.5 (tied-14th)
Field-goal pct.: Justin Tucker, 94.6 percent (4th)
Flacco and Rice, the only two starters on the Ravens' injury report, were both limited in Thursday's practice. Flacco is dealing with a left knee injury, and Rice has a thigh injury.
The official designations for Flacco and Rice -- whether they're listed as probable or questionable -- will be announced later in the afternoon.
Considering New England’s 70-25 record against the rest of the league over that span, .500 is a success. The Ravens have taken two of the three postseason meetings between the teams, including last season’s AFC Championship.
Here’s a closer look at Sunday’s Week 16 matchup:
As the QB goes...
Simply put, the Ravens have received better quarterback play in recent meetings against the Patriots.
Baltimore has picked off nine of Tom Brady's passes since 2008, tied with the Dolphins for most by any team. Miami has also played twice as many games (12) and allowed 14 more touchdowns vs. the Patriots than Baltimore.
The Ravens are a different defense from the unit that led the league in defensive expected points added from 2008-12 (+434). Baltimore’s +29.8 defensive EPA ranks eighth in the league, not as dominant as year’s past.
Patriots pass rush vs. Ravens offensive line
The Patriots are reliant on a four-man pass rush (they rush four men 75 percent of the time, the fifth-highest rate in the NFL), but their defensive line has struggled this season.
New England has controlled the line of scrimmage on 43 percent of pass plays this season, last in the league (for an explainer on how that is calculated, click here. Even before Vince Wilfork’s Week 4 injury ended his season, the Patriots defensive line only controlled 44 percent of pass plays. That’s well below league average (50 percent), a number New England has not met in its last nine games.
The player whose presence is missed the most isn’t Wilfork, but Tommy Kelly. When New England had Kelly on the field, it controlled the line on slightly more than half of opposing dropbacks. Without Kelly, the number drops to only 41 percent.
Every team wants to pressure the quarterback, but for New England it’s especially important. The Patriots defense has the third-best Total QBR allowed when quarterbacks are under pressure, but the fourth-worst when quarterbacks aren’t pressured. The 26-spot difference in rank is the biggest in the league.
Ravens CB vs. Patriots WR
Baltimore’s secondary has defended or intercepted 50 passes this season, tied for fourth most in the league, with Lardarius Webb’s 18 the second most among players. Only the Ravens and Browns have three defensive backs with at least 10 pass breakups or interceptions.
Baltimore is a top-10 defense in completion percentage and Total QBR allowed against at least three wide receivers, and has excelled defending slot receivers.
Brady’s weapons last week were all slot receivers. Of Brady’s 55 passes against Miami, 43 went to Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Josh Boyce or Austin Collie.
Ray Rice vs. Patriots LB
Ray Rice has topped 125 yards from scrimmage in four of his six games against New England, but New England held him to 70 yards from scrimmage and 3.0 yards per opportunity (targets and rushes) in last year’s AFC Championship. Both were the lowest of his six games against the Patriots.
Rice’s recent form has been dismal. His 3.1 yards per rush ranks 46th among qualified rushers, while no qualified running back has averaged fewer yards after contact per rush than Rice (1.1). He’s averaged 4.2 yards per target, 44th in the league among 50 backs with at least 20 targets.
Is facing New England what Rice needs to get back on track? The Patriots defense has allowed 150.4 yards from scrimmage per game by running backs, seventh most in the league. With no Jerod Mayo, look for Dont’a Hightower on early downs and possibly Dane Fletcher in sub packages to be tasked with slowing Rice.
The Patriots (10-4), winners of three of their past four games, can clinch their fifth straight AFC East title with a win or a tie. The Ravens (8-6) can move one step closer to earning their sixth straight playoff berth with a victory, or they could watch their postseason hopes take a severe hit with a loss.
New England is the NFL's best team in December, winning 17 of its past 19 games in that month. The Ravens, however, are one of the best teams at home, posting a 39-8 record (.830) at M&T Bank Stadium since 2008.
ESPN.com NFL reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Jamison Hensley (Ravens) break down the showdown between these AFC powers:
Jamison Hensley: Mike, everyone knows the impact the loss of Rob Gronkowski has had on the Patriots' red zone offense. How will Tom Brady and the Patriots turn it around inside the 20-yard line?
Mike Reiss: Jamison, they were 1-for-4 in the red zone against the Dolphins, and now they go up against one of the NFL's best red zone defenses. That's not a great formula. One way to look at it is that if rookie receiver Josh Boyce holds on to one makeable catch in the end zone on third down in the first quarter, and the Patriots cap off the comeback like they had in prior weeks with Danny Amendola making a tough catch in the end zone on the final drive, we wouldn't even be talking about this. Instead, we'd be talking about their late-game magic. Then again, if tight end Michael Hoomanawanui didn't make a remarkable one-handed grab in the end zone for a 13-yard score, they might have been 0-for-4. So it's just a reminder that the margin for error is thin, which is also what the red zone is all about.
As for the Ravens, how are they doing it? To go from possibly out of the playoffs to a chance to win the AFC North with two wins to close out the season? Give us a feel for how this has happened.
Hensley: The Ravens have been riding a strong defense, kicker Justin Tucker and Joe Flacco's late-game heroics to get back into the playoff race. To be honest, I had written off the Ravens after they lost at Cleveland in the beginning of November. But this team has fought back to win four straight and are playing with more confidence than at any point this season. There has been a lot of criticism that Flacco hasn't lived up to his $120.6 million contract. While he'll never put up the elite quarterback numbers, he finds ways to win. His four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime this season is second only to Brady. And Flacco has led a game-winning drive the past two games. He is banged up right now after taking a hit to his knee in Detroit on "Monday Night Football."
This could lead the Ravens to run the ball more with Ray Rice. He has struggled all season but has shown some signs of being more productive over the past two games. The Ravens might want to try to attack the NFL's 31st-ranked run defense as well. What's been the biggest problem for the Patriots in stopping the run this year?
Reiss: A strong run defense is usually a staple of a Bill Belichick-coached team, but this year is different. A significant factor has been season-ending injuries to starting defensive tackles Vince Wilfork (Sept. 29, Achilles) and Tommy Kelly (Oct. 6, knee) and every-down linebacker Jerod Mayo (Oct. 13, pectoral muscle). That's a direct hit at the heart of a run defense, right up the middle, sort of like a baseball team losing its top pitcher, catcher and shortstop. Since that point, they've had to scheme around things; this staff has been coaching its tails off and the players have been doing their best while sometimes being asked to do things outside of their comfort zone. The other part of it is situational. For example, against Peyton Manning and the Broncos on Nov. 24, they played a sub defense the entire game and Denver was content to run against it and put up big numbers. That was a case where the Patriots gave up something (run defense) to gain something (better pass defense), which is what they've had to do this year because of the key losses.
Let's get back to Tucker a little bit, because I think it's a fascinating story. Patriots fans obviously remember Billy Cundiff from the AFC Championship in the 2011 season. Tell us more about Tucker and what he's done to become such an integral part of the team in replacing Cundiff the last two years. His postgame interview on "Monday Night Football" was one of the classics.
Hensley: Tucker has been the Ravens' Most Valuable Player. When you're saying a kicker is the MVP, you're usually not talking about a team contending for the playoffs. And the Ravens wouldn't have the hottest kicker in the NFL right now if not for that memorable -- or is that forgettable? -- miss by Cundiff in the AFC Championship Game. That led the Ravens to have an open competition at training camp the following year. Tucker clearly won the battle and hasn't tailed off since. What separates Tucker from other young kickers is his ability to convert in the clutch. He has six game-winning kicks in 30 career games. His confidence borders on being cocky, and he isn't afraid to show off swagger. Not too many kickers dance after making field goals. But that confidence has been big for the Ravens. Before that 61-yarder on "Monday Night Football," he went up to coach John Harbaugh and said: "I got this."
Speaking of confidence, what's the state of mind for these Patriots compared to past Pats teams at this time of the year? The Patriots are still fighting for a top seed, but there seems to be a lot of doubt nationally because of the close calls with Houston and Cleveland in addition to the loss at Miami.
Reiss: This Patriots team isn't short on confidence, but as Brady said, it's a club that doesn't have a lot of margin for error. They can beat anyone in the NFL, but also lose to any team in the NFL. To sum it up, this is a resilient team that has been hit hard by injuries to key players, and they fight and claw for 60 minutes, so if a team is going to beat them it's going to have to be a knockout. With two weeks remaining in the season, the Patriots are still in play for a first-round bye but also could face a Week 17 scenario where they need to win to even qualify for the playoffs. That's reflective of how this season has unfolded for them -- a lot of close calls that could have gone either way.
With the amount of turnover on defense, how have the Ravens been able to sustain on that side of the ball?
Hensley: The defense has been very good this season, ranking in the top 10 in yards allowed (ninth), points given up (seventh), third downs (third) and red zone (fourth). Without Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, this is a different defense but not an inexperienced one. Daryl Smith has played better than Lewis did last season, making an impact against the pass as well as the run. Outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil has been an upgrade over Paul Kruger. Cornerback Jimmy Smith has gone from a first-round disappointment to the team's best defensive back. If this defense wants to be great, it has to find a way to finish better. Over the past three games, the Ravens have allowed four touchdowns in the final three minutes. That challenge is heightened when going against Brady, one of the NFL's best comeback kings.
It would've been understandable if Pitta had decided not to come back because he will be a free agent at the end of this season. Returning too soon or risk further injury would've hurt his stock in the offseason.
“We never had that conversation (about sitting out the season),” Pitta said, via Comcast SportsNet. “You don’t want to plan for not making the playoffs, so we never sat down and talked about that. And I don’t think that would have changed anything. I knew I wanted to get back on the field, and do that as quickly as possible. Feeling as good as I feel right now, nothing would have stopped me from coming back.”
Here's the rest of your wake-up caw ...
- Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is coming off one of his best games of the season. On Monday night, he had five tackles, a quarterback hit and a batted pass, which went to DeAngelo Tyson for an interception. “Haloti certainly is healthier than he has ever been in December,” coach John Harbaugh said, via the team's official website. “He’s played in a pretty dominating fashion the last number of games, so it’s been good to see.”
- As The Baltimore Sun's Mike Preston points out, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs was off the field quickly in the first and third quarters for considerable time. Were the Ravens resting him to have a strong fourth quarter or because of injury? The Ravens say he isn't hurt. "He has been doing some other things to help us out a little bit," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "Coverage things, things maybe we should get away from. He has been hitting guys before they go out, holding them up."
- The Ravens have plenty of respect for a Patriots passing attack even though tight end Rob Gronkowski is injured and Wes Welker is playing in Denver. “The Patriots do as good a job as anybody in the league and have over the years of fitting players into their offense and then taking advantage of the things that they do well,” Harbaugh said, via the Carroll County (Md.) Times. “Each one of those guys you’re talking about, they fit a specific role. You’re talking about [Edelman] and [Amendola]. They do the underneath stuff, the short passing game, the inside routes, and they do a great job of that.”
Flacco wore a brace on his left knee for the second straight day. He was injured midway through the fourth quarter Monday when the helmet of DeAndre Levy hit Flacco's knee.
Here is the Ravens' complete injury report:
Did not participate: CB Asa Jackson (thigh) and LB Albert McClellan (neck).
Limited participation: QB Joe Flacco (knee) and RB Ray Rice (thigh).
Full participation: TE Dallas Clark (illness) and S Brynden Trawick (ankle).
Flacco acknowledged he was a bit concerned after his knee got bent inward following the hit from the helmet of Detroit Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy but realizes it could have been far worse. "It was a little scary," Flacco said, according to ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley. "I've never really had a severe knee injury, so you don't know what is what. So when you feel something, you definitely get a little bit scared." The fear was alleviated once Flacco saw he could put weight through the leg and it would still support him, but that doesn't mean he'll turn down a little bit of extra protection Sunday.
He has been outfitted with a brace, similar to the style worn by other quarterbacks who have suffered major knee injuries like Tom Brady and Robert Griffin III, and is sporting it in his light practices this week. He plans to wear it for the game because, as Flacco points out, "There's no reason not to."
The primary reason for wearing the brace is to offer Flacco's knee some support while also providing protection from the type of blow he took Monday night. While bracing does not render an athlete entirely injury-proof, this type of brace provides solid protection in the direction in which Flacco was hit, a bowing inward of the knee from a force on the outer aspect of the joint (also called a valgus stress). Valgus forces stress the inner side of the knee joint, which is reinforced by the medial collateral ligament. That MCL -- while intact if Flacco suffered only a mild sprain -- still sustained trauma and tissue damage and could be at risk for further injury from a similar blow. Flacco has been experiencing some stiffness and soreness in his knee, not uncommon after even a mild sprain, and his mobility may be somewhat challenged by the injury. By finishing out the game Monday night, he proved that he could play through the injury, and the rest and treatment he has been receiving early in the week should help.
Nonetheless, it will be in Flacco's best interest not to test the resiliency of his injured knee. Ideally, he will avoid getting piled on in the pocket and may be encouraged to release the ball a bit sooner. While Flacco is not known as a scrambler, he certainly picks up yards when he needs to and doesn't hesitate to slide, something that is a bit harder to do with a sore MCL. He may opt to head out of bounds when he is forced to run as opposed to sliding underneath (or into) defenders for yardage. In other words, he has to be mobile enough to escape further injury, something the Ravens have no doubt evaluated in terms of allowing him to play. After all, Flacco got through Monday night's incident without any major injury, keeping his six-year streak of consecutive games alive. He doesn't want to tempt fate twice.
Results will be announced after the season.
But we thought it might be fun to get input from readers on one of the tougher positions to select the best: wide receiver.
We are picking three for the All AFC North Team, and the division includes four standouts and one up-and-coming rookie: Cleveland’s Josh Gordon, Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green and Marvin Jones, and Baltimore’s Torrey Smith.
Where does Tucker's streak rank in NFL history? It's the fourth-longest.
This not only shows that Tucker has the longest field goal streak in the past seven years but it highlights Tucker's unusual consistency for a kicker his age.
These are the ages of those kickers when their streaks began: Vanderjagt (32), Anderson (38) and Stover (37). Tucker just turned 24 last month.
The logical next question is whether Tucker has it in him to beat these marks. The pressure certainly hasn't gotten to Tucker in his first two years in the league, and the statistics prove that.
Tucker is 16-of-17 when the Ravens are down by seven points or less. He is 12-of-13 in the last two minutes of a game. He is also 22-of-23 in the fourth quarter.
It's probably out of reach for Tucker to set the NFL record in the last two regular-season games. He needs to hit 10 in a row to do that. But, with the way Tucker is kicking the ball and kicking in pressure situations, it's hard to bet against Tucker when he has something in his sights.
Every week leading into the New England Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss go over the matchup. This week, it's a Sunday game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore (CBS, 4:25 p.m. ET):
Mike: Let's get right into it, Tedy. What do you see from this Ravens team?
Tedy: This is a different set of circumstances for them this year. Last season they struggled down the stretch -- losing 23-20 to the Steelers on Dec. 2, losing at Washington 31-28 and at Denver 34-17, before beating the Giants 33-14 and closing with a 23-17 loss at Cincinnati. But then they turned it on in the playoffs, parlaying it into a Super Bowl.
It's nothing like the present picture. They've won four in a row -- against the Jets, Steelers, Vikings and Lions. Now they've taken the role of the team late in the season that is building momentum toward a playoff push. Watching them play Monday night against the Lions, when they don't even score a touchdown but get six field goals from kicker Justin Tucker, the resolve of this team is evident. It's going to be tough for the Patriots to go on the road and get this victory.
Mike: Bill Belichick has made the point that he's focused mostly on the Ravens' most recent games, and that's something you are stressing as well. The NFL season is long and maybe no team has evolved as much as Baltimore.