Commentary

Raving about the Ravens

Five reasons not to take Baltimore lightly

Updated: January 5, 2010, 1:46 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

The New England Patriots are 5-0 lifetime against the Baltimore Ravens and beat them in Week 4 at Foxborough, but rest assured, the Patriots won't be looking past the Ravens when the teams clash in an AFC wild-card battle Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

"We have a lot of respect for the Ravens from top to bottom -- [owner] Steve [Bisciotti], [general manager] Ozzie [Newsome], [head coach] John [Harbaugh], their staff, their players," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Monday. "They had a tremendous year last year. They went to the conference championship game and they're back at it again."

Here are five reasons the Patriots need to be concerned with the Ravens.

Rice, Rice, baby

One of the lasting images from the Ravens' Week 4 visit to Gillette is a defiant Ray Rice stiff-arming Brandon Meriweather as the back was finally shoved out of bounds after taking an inside draw for a 50-yard trot. That big gain helped the Ravens score and pull within a field goal in the fourth quarter, although New England held on for a 27-21 triumph.

The second-year back out of Rutgers ran for 103 yards on 11 carries (9.4 yards per rush) and caught five passes for 49 yards that day. He hasn't slowed down since.

Rice joined Jamal Lewis (2,006 yards in 2003) as the only players in team history to amass more than 2,000 total yards in a season, piling up 2,041. Rice rushed for 1,339 yards on 254 carries (5.3-yard average) with seven touchdowns, while also hauling in a team-high 78 passes for 702 yards (9 yards per catch) and one score.

Given his ability to attack the opposition as a back or receiver, Belichick was asked Monday during his weekly appearance on Boston sports radio station 850 WEEI whether the 5-foot-8, 210-pound Rice reminded him of Eagles running back Brian Westbrook.

"Stylewise, [Rice is] a much more physical runner than Westbrook," Belichick said. "Westbrook, I'd say, is a little shiftier and more of a space player, kind of like a Kevin Faulk-type of a player. Ray Rice is physical. He can pound the ball, he can get downhill, a lot like the backs we've seen here in recent weeks, like DeAngelo Williams and the Buffalo backs like [Fred] Jackson and [Marshawn] Lynch, and Thomas Jones from the Jets. Guys like that. He can run the ball tackle-to-tackle."

Don't forget McGahee

The emergence of Rice made running mate Willis McGahee a bit of a forgotten man, but the seventh-year back has been plenty productive.

[+] EnlargeWillis McGahee
Stew Milne/US PresswireAlthough his role has diminished, Willis McGahee averaged 5 yards per carry and scored 14 touchdowns.

While McGahee's carries have been sliced by nearly two-thirds since the 2007 season (294 to 109), he still gained 544 yards (a career-best 5 yards per carry) and scored a career-high 14 touchdowns. What's more, he fumbled just once.

McGahee might have been overlooked if not for a monster game in a Week 17 victory over the Raiders in which he carried 16 times for 167 yards and three touchdowns to help punch Baltimore's postseason ticket.

"Willis took over the game the way he ran," Harbaugh said. "I think our offensive line deserves a lot of credit. Obviously there were holes, but this guy was running north and south. He was powerful, he was explosive, and I think he's worked really hard all season to have this kind of game."

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Baltimore led the NFL in rushing touchdowns with two skill players in the backfield, with McGahee scoring 11 times out of such formations. The Patriots will also have to be careful about keeping seven guys in the box against McGahee, who piled up 127 yards and two scores on 12 carries against that look versus Oakland.

Clearing the way

One of the scarier moments from the Ravens' Week 4 loss occurred when left tackle Jared Gaither collided with Joe Flacco after the quarterback was hit by defensive end Ty Warren.

The game was delayed about 10 minutes while Gaither was taken away on a stretcher. X-rays taken on his neck and shoulders at Massachusetts General Hospital were negative.

Gaither, who missed three games with a foot injury before returning against Oakland, is back in the starting lineup, anchoring a tackle spot that helped the Ravens' ground attack average 137.5 yards per game (fifth best in the NFL).

"They're very strong at tackle with Gaither and [Michael] Oher," Belichick said on WEEI on Monday. "They've moved [tackle Marshal] Yanda in a little bit at guard for [Chris] Chester, and they've gotten a little bigger there. And, of course, [Ben] Grubbs is a good guard, one of the best guards in the league. They've got a good blocking fullback in Le'Ron McClain. I think all of their backs run hard. They've used Chester a little bit at tight end, so that it's not all on [Todd] Heap, and Heap can do his thing, which is block some, but also do more in the passing game."

Reed and react

The Baltimore defense got a huge boost when Belichick favorite Ed Reed returned in Sunday's win over the Raiders. Reed led the Ravens with three forced fumbles and also intercepted three passes, returning one for a touchdown. The Ravens' secondary is tougher to exploit with Reed on the field, as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady noted earlier this season.

[+] EnlargeEd Reed
Kirby Lee/US PresswireEd Reed's return on Sunday was a big boost for the Ravens' defense.

"Anytime you play a defense like that, with players like Ray [Lewis], or Ed, they're so good at what they do, you can't ever be sloppy with guys like that," Brady said in the days following the Week 4 victory. "You can't say that about a lot of the defenses you face. Some guys you can do things that aren't fundamentally sound and still get away with that. Not with those guys."

In order to be successful, the Ravens must continue to harass Brady on third down. During the first meeting, Brady completed 1 of 4 passes for 11 yards on third down, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Patriots gained 319 yards of total offense that day, 85 on the ground.

The Ravens, one of the most penalized teams in the NFL, need to avoid the yellow flags. Tagged for nine penalties and 85 yards of infractions in the Week 4 loss, Lewis criticized the officials for two roughing-the-passer penalties that aided a pair of New England scoring drives: "Without totally going off the wall here, it is embarrassing to the game," Lewis said. "Brady is good enough to make his own plays, let him make the play."

Beware the sixth seed

The Ravens were the sixth seed a year ago when they marched to the AFC title game. Baltimore beat the AFC East champion Dolphins 27-9 in Miami, then slipped past the Titans 13-10 in the divisional round before falling to Pittsburgh.

The sixth seed in the NFC also made the conference title game last season, as the Eagles topped the third-seeded Vikings and top-seeded Giants before falling to the Cardinals.

The Ravens have thrived from the lower seeds. Baltimore was a wild card in 2000 when it won its only Super Bowl and added another playoff victory as a wild card the following year. Yet the Ravens lost their first playoff game after winning the AFC North in 2003 and 2006.

"We're in the same position as last year, where we had to win the last couple of games," McGahee said after Sunday's win over Oakland. "Once we get in there, we know we can do damage. And now we're in there."

Added Lewis: "In my 14 years, I've never had a pretty road to the playoffs. It's always been a grind, but there's no better thing than having that grind and getting to advance. I like where we're positioned right now, and I like all the adversity we've gone through. I just like seeing this team fight."

Working against the Ravens is their record against quality opponents; Baltimore went 1-6 against teams that made the playoffs this season.

Materials from the Associated Press were used in this report.

Chris Forsberg is a roving reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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